I beg to move,
That the National Assistance (Determination of Need) Amendment Regulations, 1959, a draft of which was laid before this House on 15th June, be approved.
It might be for the convenience of the House, Mr. Speaker, if, with your permission and the agreement of the House, it were possible for us on this Motion to have a general discussion covering not only the contents of the Regulations, but also the contents of the National Assistance Bill, the Second Reading of which is the next Order on the Order Paper. The matters dealt with in both of them are so closely interlocked that I should find it difficult to separate them.
Then I think it will be for the convenience of the House, because the matters are difficult to separate, and the discussion on the Motion can cover also the principle of the Bill. Of course, the details of the Bill can be discussed when we reach the Committee stage.
I am much obliged, Sir. I think we can best discuss the matter on this basis, since both the Regulations and the Bill deal with three closely related matters, which are the three main matters embodied in the statement I made to the House last week. They are the proposals to increase the scale rates of National Assistance, to increase a large number of the National Assistance disregards, and to provide for a new treatment of the problem which arises in connection with the grant of assistance, particularly in respect of rent, where a recipient of assistance is a householder whose household includes an earning member.
The Regulations deal with the first and third of those matters and also with those disregards which relate to earnings. The Bill is necessary in order to give us power to deal with the other disregards. That is so because they are embodied in the second Schedule to the National Assistance Act, 1948 and, being legislation, it can only be amended through further legislation.
This is, in substance, the subject matter of the statement which, hon. Members may recall, I made on 15th June. I can probably best serve the House if I seek to take these matters item by item, to explain their effect, and to give to the best of my ability the reasons why they are put forward. I will begin with the scale rates.
The proposal to increase the scale rates is, unlike that on any previous occasion, not the result of, or necessitated by, changes in the cost of living. On the contrary, it embodies a proposal by the Government to raise the actual standards of Assistance and, therefore, to improve the standards of life of the recipients of Assistance. That it is, as I said in my statement, a proposal put forward in that context and for that purpose, rather than as on all previous occasions to cope with changes in prices, was vividly illustrated by the fact that four days after I had made my statement, it was announced by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour that the Index of Retail Prices had fallen for May from 109·5 to 109·1, and that it was, therefore, now fractionally below what it was this time last year, and only one point above the level at which it was in January, 1958, when the present National Assistance scales, approved by the House in December, 1957, came into force.
In these circumstances, I need not deal with the past criticisms which have been made of the use of the Index of Retail Prices for this purpose, because it is the fact that in recent months—indeed, in recent years—whatever may have been the case in the earlier years of the index, the other possible indices which the ingenuity of various people have evolved give substantially the same result as the Index of Retail Prices. It is, and I would stress this, the stability of prices, in part at any rate, which offers us the opportunity to take this step and make this advance in standards. It is, plainly, difficult to make a deliberate advance in standards at a time when one is competing with rising prices and when, particularly in view of the fact that National Assistance is as it has often been called, the long-stop of the social services, it is necessary to move its scales to compete with price changes.
When, however, we have achieved, as we have over recent months and particularly over the recent year, a considerable measure of stability, it then becomes much more practicable to make an advance in standards. It is also, as the House will appreciate, a great deal easier for my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to face the substantial increase in expenditure which is involved for this purpose at a time when the national economy is strong and resilient.
The details of the proposed increases are given in paragraph 3 of the Explanatory Memorandum of the National Assistance Board, which is printed in the body of the White Paper. It is proposed that the main householder scales should rise from 45s. a week for a single person to 50s., and the married rate from 76s. a week to 85s. As the House is aware, special scales are applicable both to blind people and to those who have given up their occupation to undergo treatment for pulmonary tuberculosis. These scales are raised by a little more than the ordinary scales, so that, in general, the margin over the ordinary scales will be 22s. 6d a week instead of, as at present, 20s.
I know that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) takes a great interest in the scales for children, and I think he will recall that it is a point about which he and I have both concerned ourselves frequently in the House. As hon. Members will see, the proportionate increase in the scales for children is on the high side relative to the other changes, particularly in the case of the older children who are generally the most expensive to maintain.
It is possible to appreciate the extent of the improvement in standards if one compares the results which will be achieved, if the House approves the proposals, with the change in prices since the scales were first fixed in 1948. The Index of Retail Prices has moved over that period by 55 per cent., but if the House approves the proposals, the scale for the single householder will be, in cash terms, 108 per cent. above the July, 1948 level; for a married couple it will be 113 per cent. and for a child between the ages of 11 and 15 it will be 119 per cent. Another possibly useful comparison is with the change in earnings over the period. Taking the nearest dates that are available, earnings between April, 1948, and October, 1958, have risen on the average by about 90 per cent. These Assistance proposals will, as I have already indicated, carry the various National Assistance scales to levels in excess of 100 per cent.
It is not, as the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East suggested when I made my statement last week, because of anything to do with changes in rents that the proposals are put forward. As the right hon. Gentleman will recall with his own experience of the matter, rents and rates are dealt with separately and outside the scales. So whatever may be the factors which affect the lives of those on National Assistance, they are in very large measure insulated from changes in rents and rates because of that provision. I only think it necessary to say this because of the observation made by the right hon. Gentleman last week.
That this is a real increase in standards is again illustrated when one bears in mind the fact I have just mentioned. It is often the case that when we are discussing National Assistance scales, only the scale rates are given, but for a realistic appreciation of what they are worth, what they mean for those who have to live on them, it is necessary to remember that to the scales are added, in the majority of straightforward cases, the actual rents and rates paid.
The latest figure I have for the average rent and rates paid by recipients of National Assistance is 18s. 6d. a week. That is an average; there are, of course, wide differences in individual cases. When that figure is added to the 50s. single and 85s. married scales which we propose, it is clear that for those concerned, who are the poorest section of the community, these are substantially beyond proposals which in other spheres have been made in respect of pension or other analogous benefit rates.
I can illustrate that again with one more set of figures. A family man with a wife and three children paying a rent of this average figure of 18s. 6d. receives at the moment under the present scales, if there are no discretionary additions—I am talking here about the scale rates—£7 6s. a week. Under our proposals that amount will rise to £8 1s. 6d.
When I mention the family man I ought to refer at this stage to a point on which there has been a little misunderstanding. The same misunderstanding was, I think, reflected in an article in The Times last Saturday. In assessing need in these sorts of cases the Board, quite properly, takes account of family allowances. In other words, the figures which I have given for both the present and the proposed level of payments will include, in the case I have given, 18s. by way of family allowances. The family allowances are paid also to the man when he is earning.
It is important to appreciate that a straight comparison in the case of a family man, which is where the problem arises between the Assistance scales and his rates of earnings, can be extremely misleading unless the fact is taken into account that on the earnings side of the equation there remains to be added the family allowances to which the man is entitled anyhow.
We have attempted to deal as generously as possible with the problem of children. To round off this part of the discussion, it is relevant to bear in mind that in the great majority of cases children of school age who are the children of persons on Assistance receive their school meals without payment—there are some exceptions, but it is a fairly general practice—and in the case of younger children, similarly, the welfare milk in such cases is free.
The next item that I should mention is that of the disregards. They are of importance from two points of view. The first is that they have remained unchanged since 1948, and, therefore, though their cash value has remained the same, their real value has diminished. Secondly, they are of importance in the case of people who have modest savings. They are also of importance in connection with another matter which I should like to discuss with the House for a few moments, and that is the possible unwillingness of certain people to apply for Assistance even though they may be eligible for it.
There is a widespread view that if one has any savings one is debarred from Assistance. It is the fact that an archbishop of a certain church in this country was recently reported as saying that if one called for Assistance one had to have one's furniture sold. It is, therefore, extremely important that we should be clear that substantial disregards exist at the present time and that it is not necessary to have exhausted one's savings and be wholly without means to be entitled to National Assistance. In this connection, I stress the word "entitled."
I think that the simplest way of dealing with the disregard changes is to indicate, as I did last week, that the broad proposal is to increase most of them by about 50 per cent., but to complete the picture I should also mention those which are not affected. This is relevant to what I said a moment ago. The house owned by the applicant and its contents are disregarded, and so are £375 of what are technically called "war savings". That disregard, as I said in reply last Monday to a Question from the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick), was introduced originally during the war, not primarily as an Assistance disregard, but much more as a stimulus for war savings and to encourage people to put their savings in that direction rather than in others. It has, I think, very little connection with what we are discussing. It is in some degree an old provision, and we are not proposing to change it.
What is proposed is to take powers in the Bill to enable us by Order to make changes in the disregards as present set out in the National Assistance Act. It seems the convenient way to do it. We change the scales by regulations subject to the affirmative Resolution procedure, and it seems to be for the future the practical way also to do this. I ought, however, to point out to the House that we propose in the Bill that, though the regulations made under it in respect of disregards will, in all future cases, be subject to the affirmative Resolution procedure, on this occasion the negative Resolution procedure should be used.
The reason for that is simple. There would not be time, if Parliament approves the Bill, to make the regulations, get them through the Select Committee in this House and the Special Orders Committee in another place, get the affirmative Resolutions on them and have them in operation before any normal time for rising for the Summer Recess. I am sure that the House would agree with me that it is extremely important that these changes in the disregards, with the benefit which they will undoubtedly bring to people, particularly with modest savings, should be brought into operation at the same time as the changes in scale rates.
If we make the changes otherwise than together within a comparatively limited time, they will in some cases give no help to those who have savings because they are outside the disregard limit and we shall only create misunderstanding and confusion. However, to safeguard the position of the House I have thought it right to set out in the White Paper the precise nature of the use it is proposed to make of the powers, so that the House shall be fully aware in dealing with the Bill of just the same facts that it would have been aware of if it had had affirmative Resolutions in front of it, as it will on any future occasion.
We are proposing substantial changes in this way in the existing disregards. We propose to increase from £50 to £100 the amount absolutely disregarded. In practice, that means increasing it from £75 to £125, because the Board takes account of capital savings only in blocks of £25. We propose to increase from £400 to £600 the overall limit on capital that one may have without being disqualified for National Assistance, and to apply to it the existing rule under which the assistance amounts otherwise payable are reduced by 6d. a week in respect of each £25 of that capital.
We propose to deal with income disregards in broadly the same way. The present disregard in respect of war disability pension, industrial injury pension, workmen's compensation and so on, is 20s. It is proposed to increase that to 30s. The present disregard for occupational pensions and friendly society and trade union sick pay is 10s. 6d., and it is proposed to increase that to 15s. It is proposed to raise the overall figure for the income disregards, other than in respect of earnings from 20s. to 30s. If the House approves these proposals, the Board has authorised me to say that it will exercise discretion which it exercises in respect of certain analogous payments, such as voluntary allowances and charitable payments, so as to increase the disregard in respect of such payments from the present level of 10s. 6d. to the same level of 15s. That will, of course, include the recently announced disregard, at present 10s. 6d., in respect of a war widow's pension.
The earnings disregards are a little complicated and, although I do not seek to weary the House, the explanation may take me a moment or two. They fall into three categories. First of all, there are those people registering for employment who receive their assistance through the offices of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service. The present disregard of earnings in respect of them is 10s., and it is proposed to raise it to 15s.
Next, there are those receiving assistance in what I might call the ordinary way; that is to say, people who are not considered to be fit for work, nor suited to the suggestion that they should take work. Any part-time work they can do is perhaps even more important than that of the other category. A good deal of it is often concerned with handicrafts at home and with rehabilitation courses. Therefore, we propose not only to increase the existing 20s. to 30s., but to disregard, above that, 6d. in the 1s. on the next 20s. up to 50s., and thus to eliminate a sharp demarcation in a way with which the House will be familiar in regard to the earnings limit on retirement pensions.
We also propose substantially to improve the position in relation to the earnings of children under 16 years of age. In any case, these are only taken into account in respect of the payment made to a parent on assistance by way of a dependency addition for the child. They do not otherwise affect the parent's assistance. At the moment, only one-third of such earnings are disregarded and to take a quite usual figure—that of a child of this age earning 15s. a week by distributing newspapers—the family is only 5s. a week the better for it. We propose instead to provide a disregard of 15s. in respect of such earnings which, taking into account the increase in the scale for such a child—which we propose should go to 23s.—means that 38s. would, in fact, have to be earned before the child ceased to be treated as dependent.
The cost of all these changes in disregards is £1 million in a full year in respect of the earnings disregard, and £2 million in a full year in respect of the others.
I come now to the not uncomplicated question of shared households, and perhaps I might best help the House if I make clear what the existing position is when the recipient of assistance has an earning member of his family living with him. This is not, of course, a problem that affects every case. For instance, it does not affect the problem of lodgers. It is limited in the way that I have described.
In most cases, the Board does not, as ordinarily, take into its calculation the actual rent paid. Instead, it applies what is called the "local rent rule". That consists of applying for this purpose what the Board was advised in 1950 to be a reasonable rent for the locality. A very large number of the recommended rent figures in many parts of the country are of the order of 14s., 15s., or 16s. a week.
At present, the Board also takes into account an assumed contribution of 7s. a week by the earning member to general household expenses. To give an example of the way in which this works out, I will take a family which pays a rent of 20s. a week where the local rent rule is at 14s. a week—a fairly common figure—and which has one earning member. The Board at present deducts 7s. from the 14s. in respect of the assumed contribution.
We propose a radical change in those arrangements, which are, as I say, not easy to work or to justify on the basis of the 1950 figures. We propose that the local rent rule and the local figures should be abandoned and that, instead, the Board should take into account not the local rent figure but, in the vast majority of cases, the actual rent paid. We propose to dispense with the assumed contribution of 7s. a week to the general household expenses and instead, starting on the basis of the actual rents paid, to assume that each member of the household contributes his own proportionate share of the rent.
In the example that I have just given to the House to illustrate the present position, the effect would be that instead of starting on a basis of 14s. the Board would start on the basis of 20s. and deduct 6s. 8d. for the one earning member. It would, therefore, pay 13s. 4d. instead of 7s. In the vast majority of cases this will produce in cash terms an improvement whose substance can best be gauged by the fact that the cost of the change is estimated at £2 million in a full year.
There will, however, be certain cases—where the rent is rather low—in which the effect of the change would be to worsen the position of the household. In such cases the Board will operate a standstill, as it has on previous occasions when changes like this have been made—
It will be taken into account by the Board's officers, with the other changes that we hope will operate in September. The Board's officers will certainly try to apply it themselves, but it will probably be of help to them if those affected explain their position. In almost every case, the household will also be affected by the improvement in the scale rates and, in quite a number of cases, by the changes in the disregard provisions as well—
By what method will those proportions be determined? Will account be taken in the change of the fact that in some cases the earners will be different in age and bringing in different sums?
As the hon. Gentleman knows, the present assumed contribution of 7s. is not taken into account at all where the earnings of the earning member are less than £3 a week; indeed, it is not taken fully into account unless the earnings are appreciably greater. The same principle will operate in this respect.
In cases where the proposed change operates adversely to the person who at present receives National Assistance and has the benefit of the existing arrangement of a notional rent of 14s. and an assumed 7s. contribution from the earning member of the family, will the present position remain unchanged?
As I have said, in all existing cases the Board intends to operate a standstill.
That this will be mainly a beneficial change is illustrated by the fact that it will cost £2 million in a full year. I also suggest that the new arrangement is sounder in principle. It is sounder in Principle to take into account the actual rent and to assume that both the earning member and the recipient of assistance are paying their share of the rent, than to operate—whatever may have been its merits at one time—what is now an out-of-date formula.
I would not like to pass from this question without confirming—because I am quite sure that the point will be raised later in the debate—that the change in the scale rates will not be regarded by the Board as in any way inhibiting its policy of paying discretionary additions or of making lump-sum payments. It will be done simply from a higher level, as it were. It is important to a proper understanding of how this works to appreciate how it has developed. Out of 1,649,000 weekly allowances being paid at the end of 1958, no fewer than 780,000 had discretionary additions of an average of 7s. When one comes to the payments in supplementation of the retirement pension, the proportion rises to 63 per cent. The proportion has continued to rise despite the fact that the Board's scales have fully maintained, and more than maintained, their original value. Largely because of the increasing experience and knowledge of the Board's officers in their duties over the years, these discretionary additions introduce a most valuable element of flexibility, perhaps unique in our social services, into the administration of this service.
Yes, Sir. As the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, when one is dealing with National Assistance individual cases have infinite variety and one must consider the circumstances. I think the Board's officers understand the wisdom and fairness of uniformity, but there are a variety of circumstances which call for these special measures.
Here I should also refer for completeness to the lump sum payments made to deal with domestic or other emergencies. My hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Kershaw) referred to the value of this assistance on 5th June. May I now say that 152,000 such payments were made last year.
I come now to the question of the often alleged feeling that one's pride is hurt or one's self-respect is damaged by making an application for National Assistance. That such a feeling exists it would be foolish to deny, but it has been enormously diminished in recent years and to some extent is now more the product of historical memories than of actual facts. That is the view of the National Assistance Board and, for what it is worth, it is my own view. None of the various surveys made have effectively provided us with names and addresses which would enable the Board's officers to check and discover the truth of this matter.
I agree that it would be a tragedy if any one who was in need and was suffering was deterred from applying for assistance by this thought. It is therefore important that we should analyse its causes. So far as it exists, or is thought to exist, it is to a considerable degree the product of ignorance. It is ignorance of the point that I have mentioned, that one does not need to be penniless to be assisted.
There is also widespread ignorance of procedure, which I think bears out what the hon. Gentleman has just said. There is a belief that the applicant for assistance has to come cap in hand. That is the traditional phrase, although caps are themselves becoming obsolete in many quarters. It is perhaps felt that an applicant has to face some hard-faced committee. That is not the procedure. The Board's Annual Report which I laid before the House last week sets out on page 34 what the normal procedure is. The more widely this is appreciated and known, the more will this unwillingness to apply for assistance disappear.
All that is necessary in the overwhelming majority of cases is to send a form which can be obtained from my Department's offices or from post offices to the office of the local National Assistance Board. A call is then made at home and a discussion takes place which is concerned as much with needs as with means. The Board has asked me to stress this. The more that procedure is realised the more it will be clear that no one has the slightest reason for failing to exercise the rights which this House has given them in respect of National Assistance.
There is an idea that this is charity and, as such, is derogatory. This is no more charity than any other social service for which Parliament votes the money. Family allowances are financed in exactly the same way, and I have never heard of any unwillingness to apply for them, nor for that most honourable and distinguished of all the monies that Parliament votes, war disability pensions. I hope that both in our discussion in the House today and outside hon. Members on both sides will try to prevent anything being said or suggested which a sensitive person could take as indicating that if he exercises the rights that this House has given him he is subjecting himself to some slur or some diminution of self-respect.
I am certain that if we make it clear that this is a social service like any other, more flexible perhaps, more exactly designed to deal with varying cases of hardship, but financed by the taxpayer in the same way as others, the more we can put paid to the idea which can cause, and has in the past caused, unnecessary misery by the thought that one loses one's self-respect by exercising the rights which a Christian and civilised society gives of ensuring that no one should fall below the levels that Parliament has laid down.
Can the Minister say what he has done to give the admirable explanation he has given the House wider notice outside? He said that the National Assistance Board had assured him that the number of people who were not taking advantage of the right to assistance is very small. One of the difficulties is that those people who do not take advantage of it never come to the notice of the Assistance Board. I think many people are under an illusion. What steps has the Minister, or the Board, taken to bring the point that he has made so well to the House to the notice of those concerned?
I am coming to that. We are anxious, though this is an illusion, to give it absolutely no support, and suggestions have been made, and I hope there will be more this afternoon, about what we can do to diminish any possibility of misunderstanding. Many people suggest that for this purpose we should legislate to change the name of the National Assistance Board. I do not think that would be valuable. It is a matter of historical interest, as right hon. Gentlemen opposite will recall, that the present name of the Board was introduced in 1948 with a view to removing any pre-existing stigma. I do not think that as long as the Board's functions remain broadly the same we should be dealing intellectually and honestly with our fellow countrymen if we were to change the name while retaining the organisation and the system. Rather, we should remember the good name which the Assistance Board's staff have earned for themselves.
I hope I may be allowed to pay tribute both to the present Chairman of the Board and his predecessor Geordie Buchanan, who between them have given to the Board an importance which has been preserved and made National Assistance the most sensitively administered of all our social service. At the same time, may I add a tribute to the good work that was done by Sir Harold Fieldhouse, who acted as Secretary from the beginning and who, to our regret, retired from the public service at the beginning of April. Also, what I have said applies equally to the officers of the Board.
Here I come to the specific point put by the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker). I have discussed with the Board the form and appearance of the book on which National Assistance is paid, and which has the words "National Assistance" somewhat prominently displayed in the right-hand top corner. The Board sees no reason why those words should not be eliminated and some other form or expression substituted. I have no decision to announce as to what that form should be, and both the Board and myself would value the opinions of the House. Forms of words have been suggested, such as "supplement to benefit" or "supplement to pension". The difficulty is that these order books are issued to many people who have no benefit or pension to supplement, and these words would then be somewhat illogical. But I have no doubt that we can find some formula to meet that point.
I would invite the attention of the House to the fact that apart from the words "National Assistance" on the cover, the book is very similar in appearance to the innumerable other books which are cashed at the same counter in our post offices. I do not know whether hon. Members are familiar with these books. I have a copy, upon which I now observe that the Assistance Board, with admirable caution, has marked the word "Cancelled" before issuing it to me. Hon. Members will see that it resembles the order books upon which family allowances, retirement pensions and other social service payments are obtained.
Apart from that, I am proposing a change in the wording used on this subject in the retirement pension books which my Department issues. I have authorised a change from the somewhat bleak formula at present embodied in Note 15 of that book. The following words are to be substituted:
The National Assistance Board will be glad to advise you whether you are entitled to a supplement to your pension. In particular, if you (or you and your wife) are living alone and have no income other than retirement pension, you may be eligible for a supplementary allowance. To find out you should send to the local office of the National Assistance Board a form (O1.) which can be obtained, already addressed, at the post office or the local Pensions and National Insurance Office. You will not have to visit the Board's office or appear before a committee but will he visited in your own home.
You can get a leaflet (A.L.18.) with fuller particulars at the post office or at the local Pensions and National Insurance Office which will give you some idea of what resources (capital or income) you may have and still
be eligible for help; it is not for example necessary that you should have exhausted your savings.
That does not exhaust the expedients that we have in mind, or that hon. Members may be able to suggest, but I think that an approach on those lines, without giving undue importance to it but designedly eliminating any phrase that may be thought to be a pinprick or discouragement, is the one which it is wise and profitable to pursue and which, with the consent of the House, I should like to see followed.
In these Regulations we are proposing improvements in National Assistance. The fact that we are doing so now does not mean, and should not be taken by anybody to mean, that it reflects in any way our policy in respect of other social services. I have no doubt that I should be ruled out of order if I were to attempt to say more than that the assurances given by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer and myself in relation to National Insurance benefits are not affected in any way by the fact that we are now bringing forward these proposals. Those undertakings remain with the full force behind them of a Government who have a good record in these matters.
These improvements in National Assistance will undoubtedly have the greatest possible effect in relieving hardship. In the nature of things, the £32 million, which is the full cost involved, will go to those who need help most. Last week, when I made my statement, the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East asked whether it would not have been better to grant this increased income by way of an increase in National Insurance benefits. That proposal ignores two vital factors—first, that this increase will go to about 500,000 people who do not receive National Insurance benefits—indeed, to people whose hardship and difficulty may largely be connected with that fact—and, secondly, that it would be of no help to those who do enjoy National Insurance benefits and who are also receiving National Assistance—that is, the poorest—unless an increase were made in National Assistance at the same time, because the additional income they would receive from one source would suffer an offset in respect of the other.
I therefore commend these proposals to the House at this time as being proposals designed to help the poorest section of our community to share in the rising standards of an increasingly prosperous nation. Whatever other things it may be possible to do at another time, I am quite sure that it is right, now, to seize the opportunity which our financial and economic strength provides to secure to the poorest of the poor a better share in the prosperity of this nation.
The House will be very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the very clear and patient way in which he has explained the provisions contained in the Regulations and the Bill. It is a very clear statement, which I look forward to reading again when I have a little more leisure to consider it and when I am not preoccupied with what I want to say myself.
Hon. Members on both sides of the House will be glad that these improvements are to be made. We wish to see improvements in National Assistance scales and in the other aspects of National Assistance, and we have always so wished. In February, 1957, I moved a Motion calling for an increase in National Insurance benefits and National Assistance scales. On that occasion, 306 hon. Members opposite voted against my Motion, and it was defeated—but in November, only eight months later, the Government decided to increase both the benefits and National Assistance. On 20th April last I moved a similar Motion, regretting that the Government, which had been able to provide tax reliefs amounting to £366 million, had not taken the opportunity to raise both National Insurance benefits and National Assistance. Then, 319 hon. Members opposite voted against my Motion and defeated it—but nine weeks later these proposals are presented to us by the right hon. Gentleman. The time-table is improving. It took eight months on the first occasion and it has taken only nine weeks this time.
During the previous debate I described how the numbers of those drawing National Assistance were made up. I
referred to the sick, the unemployed, the non-contributory pensioners, and so on, and having given all the figures I said:
If their children are included, the number is nearer 2½ million. … They amount, in total, to more than the population of Birmingham and Glasgow put together, our two largest cities next to London. If these 2 million people could be amalgamated and put in one place, and if they could be seen by the remaining 50 million people of this country, there is no doubt whatever that the Government would have to act quickly—they would have to act this afternoon—because public opinion would be so strong and so deeply moved by the conditions in which these people, living on National Assistance, have to exist in the present state of our nation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th April, 1959; Vol. 603, c. 41.]
We rejoice that prompt action has been taken. We recognise that this represents an increased standard of living for persons living on National Assistance. Speed in these matters is essential.
As I have reminded the House already, we have pressed for increases of this kind. We are glad that the necessary legislation has been brought before us. It is right today to have a full examination of any inadequacies there may be so that any additional constructive suggestions which any hon. Member may have can be brought forward. We want, however, to get the extra money as quickly as possible into the pockets of those who so desperately need it. We have no complaint whatsoever about the procedure with regard to the Statutory Instrument which the right hon. Gentleman has explained to us. It is right and proper to do that, but let us get it through as quickly as possible.
I here and now declare on behalf of my hon. and right hon. Friends that we shall do all in our power to facilitate the very rapid passage of the remaining procedures necessary to implement these proposals. Let it be done as quickly as possible next week. There will be no attempt on this side of the House to prolong the discussion. We shall do everything we can to accelerate and assist the right hon. Gentleman in getting this Measure into law. If we do that, we hope that it may be possible for him to anticipate by a few days or a week the date that he had in mind.
The various proposals have been explained at great length by the right hon. Gentleman. I do not want to attempt to cover all the ground again but merely to allude to some of them. In general, I agree with his proposals about the disregards. It is time that these figures were increased. In the course of time the £.s.d. increases in the disregards in the original Statute have become out of date and it is right that a reasonable adjustment should be made. I regret, however, that the Bill is so tightly drawn that it makes it impossible for any hon. Member to propose any additional disregard.
Surely, when the Act has been on the Statute Book for so long, it might have been considered whether, in the light of experience in the intervening years, some additional disregards might not have been imported into the scheme. There it is. As far as I can see we cannot do that, although there is nothing to prevent any of my hon. Friends who want to draw attention to the disregards from suggesting that additions might have been made. Let us consider, for example, whether there might not be some disregards of the various basic National Insurance benefits themselves.
I want to speak particularly about the children's allowances. The right hon. Gentleman alluded to the many occasions on which I have spoken about this to the House and to the interest which he and I—and I must say that he has always received my representations on this matter with great courtesy—have taken in this matter. I am sorry to say, however, that I still cannot be quite satisfied with what is provided here. We are told on page 5 of the Explanatory Memorandum that a person twenty years of age or over is to have his allowance raised by 5s. a week. Below that age the increases provided are less than that figure. I recognise that they are proportionate, but differences already exist in the allowances. The totals resulting, especially when we come to the group less than 18 years of age, are still inadequate to meet the cost of keeping a child.
The present allowance between the ages of 16 and 18 of 26s. is to be increased to 30s. Below that age, the figures proposed are 23s., 19s. and 16s. I wish that the Assistance Board and the right hon. Gentleman, when considering this matter, could have taken a plunge for once and increased them all by the 5s. which is proposed. I still do not think that these allowances are satisfactory in view of the circumstances of the families to which they apply. I know that those who are school children get free meals at school, but none the less, I do not feel quite satisfied. I wish that a departure could have been made by giving a uniform 5s. increase so that we could have come nearer to a sum of money which would have enabled a mother to feed her child properly, clothe it properly and provide for it the necessities of life, so that the child does not feel a sense of inferiority which, I think, it must feel when it goes to school and mixes with other children.
I would take a risk on this, even though there was some risk in consequence of raising the total family income above wages, because these still rather low children's allowances bear particularly heavily upon the children of the chronic sick and of widows. For them the benefit is not a short-term benefit but a long-term benefit. The children's allowances which they get in supplementation of those covered by the benefits when they have to go for National Assistance are, I think, still inadequate.
Recently, great national publicity was given to the prosecution of a widow who was receiving National Assistance who had not disclosed her earnings. I shall not say anything about the rights and wrongs of that case. Does the House realise how many widows are prosecuted each year, mainly for that offence? In 1956, 93 widows were prosecuted for offences, and we are told in the Board's Report that these were offences in the main of not disclosing earnings. In 1957, 161 widows were so prosecuted.
The corresponding figures for retirement pensioners over the same years were 35 in 1956 and 54 in 1957. There are 53,000 recipients of widows' benefits who draw National Assistance. There are 594,000 retirement pension allowances in payment. The retirement pensioners drawing assistance are more than ten times as many as the widows, yet the prosecution of widows is three times as frequent as the prosecution of retirement pensioners.
I am not blaming anyone for this; I blame all of us together in our collective capacity. It seems to me that there is a great temptation to widows receiving these allowances to understate their earnings or in some way to falsify their statement of earnings to the Board because they are desperately trying to look after their children. That indicates that we ought to think long and hard whether the children's allowances provided are sufficient. I ask the Board again to think hard about this and, as nothing can be done about these rates now, to make a special inquiry to try to ensure that the power to make discretionary allowances is used to the maximum possible extent, particularly for the families of the chronic sick and the widows who are dependent on National Assistance and who receive children's allowances. The right hon. Gentleman has said on previous occasions that he did not think a special survey of widowhood, of this group of women and their families, was necessary, and that a sufficient volume of information was already in existence. If that be so, may we have a chapter in the next report of the Board, or two or three pages, dealing with the subject?
I do not disagree with what the right hon. Gentleman said about my rather clumsily put and hastily concocted Question last week on the subject of rents. I am disappointed that there is only a page-and-a-half in the Report about rents. I recognise that the rent provisions made here are important. We are told by the Board that it was necessary to pay a total of 300,000 grants during the year under review,
as a result of the Rent Act.
The average amount paid in that way was 6s. 8d. a week. I recognise that the figure is cumulative, as is pointed out by the Board, and therefore the average weekly cost would not have been as much as £100,000 a week, or £5·2 million a year, as might be suggested by those figures. But it is a formidable cost to the taxpayer which arises from the operation of the Government's Rent Act.
I agree, but that is not my point. My point is that it was necessary to pay a total of 300,000 grants as a result of the Rent Act. It cannot be denied that one of the conse- quences of the operation of the Government's Rent Act was a big additional bill for the taxpayers, and even more is now to be paid. Of course it should be paid. We do not want the burden of Government legislation laid on the poorest of the population. But when millions of pounds are being paid in the form of increased rents to landlords whose tenants are families in receipt of National Assistance, I think we are entitled to ask that the provisions of the Act relating to repairs be fulfilled.
When we put down a Question on the Order Paper about this matter some time ago, the answer we received was that this is a matter for the tenant. The individual tenant must see to it that his landlord complies with the letter of the law. The Board cannot do anything about that. It must only satisfy itself that the increased rent has been paid by the beneficiary. All right. The Board cannot accept the duty of ensuring that the Act has been properly applied in a case where the State is paying increased rent to the landlord, but somebody ought to do so.
I think that somehow or other we ought to get a better assurance than we have had so far that houses in respect of which the Board is paying these additional rent allowances are properly repaired. It will be no use for the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to tell the House later in the debate that the Act is the law and that what is the law will be carried out. We all know, or at any rate hon. Members on this side of the House know from experience in our constituencies, that again and again the law is being flouted by landlords.
Is it not a fact that, in addition to repairs not being carried out, the National Assistance Board does not check whether the increase is correct in the first place? I know of cases where more than the gross value has been charged and, therefore, the Board has been paying more than the correct amount.
I am sure that my hon. Friend would not make such a statement if she had not evidence to support it. It serves to buttress my argument that it is really the responsibility of the Government to ensure that the law is properly carried out. That cannot he left merely to the local authority and the tenant when the Government are paying these rent allowances, and I hope we shall be given some assurance on the subject.
When we moved our Motion of censure on 20th April we referred to £366 million of tax reliefs being given in the Budget. The provisions which we are now considering are estimated to cost £32 million, less than 10 per cent. of what the Chancellor had available. No wonder the right hon. Gentleman forgot to put his name on the Bill and it was necessary to make a special issue later which included his name.
I am glad to hear that. I am not really surprised. I have great respect for the Chancellor as a person and I am glad that his conscience touched him and he did accept responsibility.
Some interesting figures were given recently by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury—here I know that I am making no mistake because I was careful to look this matter up. In answer to a Question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) on 13th April, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury published a table showing that £33 million was given as tax relief to 200,000 taxpayers earning more than £3,000 per annum, a relief of £165 per head. Under the legislation now before us, £32 million is being given to 2½ million people who are the poorest in the land, a sum of £12 16s. per head. These are facts to bear in mind when measuring the extent to which the Government are disposing of the resources of our nation fairly or unfairly between the poor and the rich.
Less than a year ago, I estimated the number of people drawing National Assistance benefit at 2½ million. I see that in its Report the Board gives the accurate figure of 2,361,000 persons dependent on National Assistance in whole or in part. The number of allowances in payment since 1958 has increased. It has been running at a slightly higher level in 1959 than in 1958. There- fore, I think that my estimate of 2½ million persons living on National Assistance was not unfair. We consider that this figure is far too high, and if, as the right hon. Gentleman indicated this afternoon—I hope I understood him correctly—another 500,000 is to be added to that figure, bringing it to 3 million—
No. The figure of 500,000 which the right hon. Gentleman is quoting is the number of existing recipients of National Assistance who have no National Insurance benefits. It has nothing to do with any proposed increase of the total figure.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman putting his figure a little high when he refers to over 2 million? Is not that the number of payments made last year to which he is adding an additional number in 1959? Is it not a figure of 1,600,000 to which he should refer?
I am not talking about payments but about the number of people, and the figure of 2,361,000 is given in the Report of the Board as the number of persons who are living on National Assistance in part or in whole. They are either the actual recipients with the book, or the people who go to the post office and collect the money, or the spouses and children of those people, or other dependants.
I should like to get this clear. Am I right in thinking that that figure, which I have not yet found in the Report, is the number of people who at any time during 1958 did receive assistance from the Board and not the total of people living on National Assistance at the end of the year?
I do not think so. I think my figure is correct, and it tallies accurately with the number of allowances in payment at any time. Therefore I think that at any time this is the figure. I can be corrected later if I am wrong, but I do not think that I am.
Even were the figure only 1,600,000, as the hon. Member has suggested, which I think is merely the figure of those who actually draw allowances, I say that the load is too heavy. This is what Lord Ingleby thought not so very long ago, back in 1954 or 1955, when we were debating the matter. When the number of recipients of retirement pensioners drawing National Assistance reached 1 million, he was upset and introduced increases in the retirement benefit, justifying them mainly by the argument that so heavy a load of assistance was evidence of the inadequacy of the benefit.
Let me make it clear that when I say that we think that the present numbers drawing National Assistance, which are bound to be increased by the proposals which we are now considering, are too great, we are not criticising the proposals or saying that no increase should be given. We are not criticising the existence of a system of National Assistance as such. Not at all. We recognise the need for National Assistance and that it must continue for a very long time. It provides for numerous old people who have never qualified for a retirement pension. It provides for those in a similar position with regard to other National Insurance benefits and for many exceptional circumstances which are bound to continue to arise. That sort of thing cannot stop, and, therefore, National Assistance has to continue as a net underneath the other system of National Insurance benefits, or as a longstop, as the right hon. Gentleman called it. Of course it has to continue, and of course we accept the necessity for it.
The Report of the National Assistance Board shows that 68 per cent. of the allowances are paid as supplements to National Insurance benefits. No less than 68 per cent. of the allowances paid by the National Assistance Board are paid to persons who are in receipt of National Insurance benefits of one kind or another, I say that that stark fact represents a persisting failure of our system of National Insurance to do what the nation wanted to do when it set it up and what, I believe, it still wants it to do.
This system of inadequate benefits supplemented by National Assistance and subject to a means test was what we had between the wars. It was the detestation of that system by the great majority of the nation between the wars which led to the Beveridge Report and to the great change which was made in 1946. In Lord Beveridge's own words:
The proposal is to introduce for all citizens adequate pensions without means test
I recognise, of course—
I know that perfectly well, and also that it was generally accepted by the nation as a whole in 1948 that we should not wait so long—that we ought to move forward faster.
Of course, the means test is not so harsh today as it was between the wars, and of course it is right to advise citizens to apply for National Assistance if they are entitled to do so or need it. I, as I am sure do my hon. Friends, say to people, "Do not be ashamed of asking for National Assistance. Go to the National Assistance Board. It is a grant provided by the nation for your help and you ought to take it. You seem to be in need of it."
I recognise, too, that the attitude of applicants towards the matter is improving, that the old fears have to a great extent disappeared. I recognise, too, none more gladly, that the officers of the National Assistance Board have reached a very high standard indeed in doing their very difficult job. Of course I join in the tribute to the Chairman of the National Assistance Board and to the officials who have helped to bring about this changed attitude, to the better administration and to the better atmosphere surrounding National Assistance.
None the less, having said all that and having paid tribute to what is being done. I still say—and it is the settled policy of the party on whose behalf I am speaking this afternoon—that we must reduce the number of persons resorting to National Assistance and that we must remove as much as we possibly can this stigma on our system whereby 68 per cent. of the National Assistance granted has to be paid to persons receiving National Insurance benefits.
I was glad to notice that the Government and the National Assistance Board have been considering the position of those on National Assistance. It is contained in the first sentence of the White Paper, and to my mind it represents a very welcome change of procedure. Hitherto, it has been regarded as the duty of the National Assistance Board to put forward proposals and it has been assumed—it may not always have happened—that the Government have to wait for the Board to make proposals and that the Government do not initiate them. I hope that this is the beginning of the end of that procedure and that we are getting away from this rather artificial distinction between the National Assistance Board and the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance.
It was tried, in fact, to take unemployment out of politics in the days of the Unemployment Assistance Board. I do not think that unemployment or pensions should be taken out of politics. I think that they are matters with which Parliament is bound to deal and for which Ministers are bound to accept responsibility, and that it is not wrong to do it that way. So we would propose to take the next logical step. The right hon. Gentleman and the Board have taken one step, which we welcome. We would propose to take the next step and integrate the system of National Assistance fully into a system of social security, the whole to be organised under the Minister though, of course, there would be separate departments, as there are in the right hon. Gentleman's own Ministry at present, so as to ensure a close co-ordination of payments and welfare activities.
None the less, we would work to ensure that National Assistance itself became a steadily diminishing element, eventually to be what we thought it was going to be, the net in which to catch the exceptional case and not the provision for 2½ million people in our society. That can only be done by making the benefits which are paid as of right truly adequate for the needs of the individual and truly matching the standards of living attainable in an expanding economy.
I wish that the National Assistance rates could have been raised even higher. That could only be done, without a massive increase in the numbers of those on National Assistance, if the pension rate were raised as well. So by rejecting an adequate system of National Insurance the right hon. Gentleman has been prevented from raising his National Assistance rate any higher than he proposed this afternoon. But the worst of it is that what the Government have been compelled to do, by pressure from vested interests and by their desire to give lavish tax reliefs in all directions, has been erected into a new philosophy, or so it seems to us. The right hon. Gentleman did not go as far as that this afternoon, but other hon. Members did, including the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden), in expounding the doctrine that National Assistance should form a larger part of social security and that the "aid should be concentrated" on larger numbers of persons in order to avoid, they say. National Insurance benefits to persons who do not need them.
There is a complete division of opinion about this between the two sides of the House. We can agree on many things, and I have said so. We can agree in our praise of the National Assistance Board as it works, but we cannot agree that National Assistance must become an ever larger element in our system of social security. We feel that it must be a major aim of policy to reduce the numbers on National Assistance and that the way to do that is by improving the benefits so that it can no longer be said that 68 per cent. of those receiving National Assistance are already in receipt of benefits which are supposed to be adequate.
Let us make the benefits adequate. Then we can go forward to a greatly improved system of National Assistance. It is no criticism of the National Assistance Board to suggest that the numbers it helps should be reduced; on the contrary, it is a recognition of the excellent work which the Board does. Let us read that Appendix concerning the welfare action taken by the Board. It will be heartening for us to discover the care and attention with which members of the Board and its advisory committees undertake this work. Let them specialise on it and be relieved of the vast work of paying out of assistance benefit. Let them specialise on welfare service to the poorest and most needy members of our population. That is the way of social advance. The only way it can be done is by creating a truly adequate system of National Insurance.
I am very pleased to be able to follow the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) who speaks always with such knowledge and deep sincerity on these subjects. I shall begin by thanking him for his welcome acceptance of the new proposals and the generous praise he gave to my right hon. Friend for the speedy way in which the proposals are to be implemented and to become law.
We might allow the right hon. Gentleman to take a little reflected glory for the measures which he has sponsored from time to time, drawing the attention of the House and of the country to the needs which exist in this National Assistance field. It is better that he should take the reflected glory because my right hon. Friend is treading a path which Socialist Ministers never seem able to achieve when they are in office.
The right hon. Gentleman ended his remarks by saying that the way to remove distress in National Assistance in the future was to increase the benefits of the National Insurance pensions scheme. That may be right, but it is important to add that we cannot do that without an economy which is flourishing and expanding. There is no point in dangling carrots in front of the country and making vacuous promises which the economy cannot sustain. Since 1951, great progress has been made by the present Government both in pensions and National Assistance. The right hon. Gentleman was quite fair when he quoted from the Report that there are 1,649,000 families in receipt of a weekly benefit, but the total comprises 2,361,000 persons altogether. It is only fair to say that this action on the part of the Government is a mere stepping stone, but, again, a step forward in the right direction.
This is not the end of the day. I will deal later on with the portion of the right hon. Gentleman's speech relating to our economy. Sufficient for me to say now that it ill becomes any hon. Member to cast derisory glances towards the National Assistance Board which, whatever Government may be in power, will be with us for forty, fifty or sixty years, and perhaps for all time. There may come a moment in our history, after the spread of savings which has gone on so fast during the last five or six years, when the numbers on National Assistance will be reduced, because of the growth of savings and the confidence by our citizens in their future value, but there will always be social problems to be dealt with. Many of the problems of National Assistance are not due to the actions of any party or Government but arise from defects of body, mind and character. The National Assistance Board will be with us for all time to deal with that kind of problem.
A fortnight ago, when we sent the National Insurance Bill to another place after its Third Reading here, many of us who are interested in the subject might have decided to close our books and try to develop our talents in other directions. However, my right hon. Friend is a Minister who knows no peace. Since he accepted this office he has always been doing something in the pensions field, in its widest sense, to improve the lot of our people. We can say now that we like our work, even though the pearls of wisdom which we utter on the Floor of this House will find no response in our provincial and local newspapers. That makes me think of the phrase, "We happy few, we band of brothers", because we have worked together on this matter since November. It has been a band of sisters, too. I congratulated my right hon. Friend on the way in which he has sat through our pension debates, including the long Committee debates, and on his technical excellence in dealing with the Bill, and he has today made a further step forward in materially improving the situation in this respect.
The remark of the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East which will be accepted at once from both sides of the House is how very quickly the new Measure will become law. There are occasions when back benchers recognise that we have to wait before we can bring our ships to harbour and see them safely sailing in. On this occasion and in these Regulations there is not one ship or two, or even three, but a little fleet which comes sailing home to the harbour. Some of us think that my hon. Friend the Member for Kidderminster (Mr. Nabarro), because of the observations he makes about Purchase Tax, is the only one who succeeds in moving the Government. In the present case it has been pressure from both sides of the House, and largely from my own party, which has brought about these very important changes.
We shall have higher benefits than before and at an important time of the year. [Interruption.] That remark means not that we shall have them before the General Election but before the winter. It is very churlish of hon. Members opposite to think that we might keep back these benefits, which are the result of very wise statesmanship and good economic planning on the part of the Government, for electioneering purposes. On the occasion of the debate a few weeks ago my right hon. Friend was implored to make certain changes before the winter. It is in that period that extra heat, clothing and food are required, and these benefits will be there in good time. Changes in the higher disregards are important and will bring into the orbit of National Assistance benefits more people from among the marginal cases.
There is also the very important alteration in that the disregard of 10s. 6d. of weekly income is raised to 15s. in respect of voluntary pension schemes. We are all hoping that when the new National Insurance Bill becomes law it will give effect to a wider interest throughout industry and that those firms which have no voluntary scheme will effect schemes which will supplement the National Insurance pension. That will be given a fillip by this higher disregard. I am sure that the operation in regard to rent allowance is important. It was received by hon. Members opposite without criticism. I cannot understand it myself, but I shall try to do so when I read the report of the debate tomorrow.
There is an important thing which we have to accomplish. We must tell the people in some way or other what these new benefits and alterations are and what their rights are. All of us, if we see suffering, know that there is a chance to do something about it. What worries us is that the suffering is there and we may not know that it is there. That is the most important problem we have. How are we to get these rights—they are rights—over to the people? Greater use should be made of the B.B.C. sound system. Most pensioners listen in frequently for long periods to the B.B.C., and by that means we could get the message over.
It is a great pity that the Report of the National Assistance Board for the year ended 31st December, 1958, will be read by so few. If ministers of religion want to enter into public controversy there is in this Report enough information for them to preach dozens of sermons. By disseminating the knowledge contained in these pages, they would be doing a service to the old people.
The hon. Member is suggesting certain steps which could be taken to get the news to the people who will benefit thereby. He made reference to the Annual Report of the National Assistance Board. Would he agree that if the Government made that Report cheaper it would be more widely read? Old-age pensioners cannot afford 4s. 6d. for this booklet.
It is an expensive publication, but I doubt if many old-age pensioners would read it. It would, however, be of great advantage if it were circulated freely to churches and chapels so that ministers of religion, doctors, and all who lecture on welfare work, might become more acquainted with the testimonial in the Report which is given to the Board, its officers and the Chairman on their work. I join with my right hon. Friend and the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East in the tribute which has been paid to the Board, its officers and staff. I also pay tribute to the officers in my city. They have a speed for getting into action at which I am always amazed. If I write a letter to Bradford today I may be sure that on Friday, by the time I arrive home, they will have seen the constituent concerned personally. They will have seen him immediately. I wish I could make some of my right hon. Friends who sit on the Front Bench work with such speed on some of the problems I send to them.
The officers of the National Assistance Board are doing a very difficult job, and those of us who run regular "surgeries" know how difficult it is. Every case they get is a problem, and old people are not easily dealt with. These officers are dealing with the sick, the bruised, the lame and those who are hurt and injured in life's way. It is stated in the Report that during 1958 there were 6,143,000 visits paid to homes. If only more people knew that they did not have to go to a cold building in the middle of the city and queue for help but that these officers visit homes, that would be a great help.
The paragraph which must have given the greatest pleasure to the Chairman of the Board is that which deals with discretionary allowances. I know how his face is wreathed in smiles when he tells us how much more is being spent in this way. That in itself shows how much wonderful work officers of the Board are doing individually. Many hundreds of these officers are taking the trouble, in their own time, to attend refresher courses and night-school classes. That is something about which we should be pleased. I am glad that my right hon. Friend is willing to receive suggestions about the renaming of the pension book. I think it would be sufficient to call it merely the "Pension Book" because the words "Board" and "Assistance" are a deterrent and old people resent them.
Of course they are proud, but they must not be proud from the wrong motives. This is a supplementary pension which the State awards to them as of right. It has been earned by them in this half century and the last quarter century up to 1900. It is an extension, not something extra, of the thought behind the normal pension scheme. Old people must not be ashamed to avail themselves of these services. There is no reason why they should be ashamed. Estate Duty, inflation and taxation have altered all our lives. Today, noble Lords can sit in their castles at the end of a busy Bank Holiday and not be ashamed to count the half-crowns received from visitors who have gone to those places. If it is a hot day, they will also be glad of what has been received from the sale of ice-cream. We all get national assistance in some way.
I was thinking, while the hon. Member was explaining about noble Lords, that he might also explain about the Cunard Company, the aircraft industry, the cotton industry, the farmers and many other people.
The hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Fernyhough) said that he was only "thinking", but he was doing it very badly. As you, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, have said, if I took the House on a Cook's tour, perhaps in a Cunarder, I should be getting into trouble.
We are all receiving national assistance in some form or other. My wife does not feel humiliated when she goes to the Post Office to collect family allowances. I think she rather likes it. All our children, in whatever type of school, get school milk. That is national assistance. The State gives assistance over the whole field of education, and that is national assistance. We all want a bit of national assistance on 1st July from "Ernie". We are not giving our old people anything by passing this Measure—they have earned these payments by their sacrifice. Most of the men served in the 1914–19 war and, but for their sacrifices, we would not be here to discuss the method by which we can help them in their old age. They endured the slum years and paid their contributions in many ways. We get holidays with pay for two or three weeks now because they went to work as children and often had to start at 5 o'clock in the morning.
There are those who think that by these increases we are encouraging people to be idle and shiftless. The facts in the Report do not show this to be true. Indeed, the figures there show how false it is. In four years' membership of the House, out of the many hundreds of constituents who have come to me, I have known of only four men who did not wish to work. I live as near to my constituents as anybody, and I know that the natural desire of men and women is to have a job. It is futile for people to say that because these benefits are being increased we are encouraging people to be lazy.
Of course, there are lazy and good-for-nothing people, and they are to be found at both ends of the social scale. I remember during the war when the late Ernest Bevin stood at the Box, and the great man was being assailed and criticised by the House because there were 200,000 people unemployed at the height of the war effort. His reply was that we were dealing with the hard core of the unemployable. He did not mean that there were 200,000 people who did not want to work. He meant that among the 25 million workers in this country there are those who are mentally ill, the lame, the sick and those who can work for only a few weeks and who then need a rest. The Report shows that there are only a few thousand among the 25 million workers in this country who do not wish to have full-time jobs.
If hon. Members turn to page 11 of the Report they will see that in 1958, 1,649,000 weekly allowances were paid, and of those only 151,000 were in respect of unemployment benefits. It therefore follows that in this hard core will be the few who are lazy and idle but that the majority of the 151,000 are the sick, the lame, the maimed and the mentally ill. Indeed, the figure will now be lower because there has been a decrease since December, 1958. Those criticisms which are levelled against us are shown to be untrue when we examine the figures, which are a tribute to our working population.
Hon. Members will find further proof on page 24, where the figures are given of the quick turnover of those who apply for Assistance and who receive it for only a few weeks. In one week there may be 30,000 new entrants, but 28,000 may no longer draw National Assistance. In other words, the figure of 151,000 represents a majority of people who have lost their jobs temporarily, through no fault of their own, and it is right that the House, the Government and the country should do as much as possible for them during that period of unfortunate unemployment.
The hon. Member has said that some men who are unemployed have to supplement their unemployment benefit by applying for National Assistance. Does not that indicate that the present level of unemployment benefit is inadequate for subsistence?
Not necessarily. In any event, on three occasions, I think, the Government have increased the unemployment benefit, as they have increased the level of pensions. One of the important features of the Bill is that we are not only dealing with pensioners but are also raising the unemployment beneficiaries to a more adequate scale.
People who are receiving unemployment benefit have to apply for National Assistance. The obvious point, therefore, is that the unemployment benefit is inadequate for their subsistence, which is why they have to have recourse to National Assistance.
That is not logical. It does not follow at all. [HON. MEMBERS: Why not?"] Because there are about 400,000 unemployed, and we are dealing here with less than half that number. The argument is not logical. The majority of the unemployed do not find it necessary to apply to the National Assistance Board.
Many things remain to be done. The Government do not make empty promises. They deliver the goods. Fortunately for the country, we are delivering a lot of our goods to many places all over the world, because our prices are right, our economy is right and we are competitive. That, more than anything else, affects the future of our pensioners, our National Assistance claimants and the whole of our Welfare State. If we continue to be competitive this is the mere beginning of a further step forward. If we do not, then all that we have built will fall.
I draw to the attention of the House the leading article in The Times yesterday, which reads:
For some eighteen months now prices have really been on the 'plateau' which Mr. Macmillan sought when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, but which for various reasons eluded him at the time. Moreover, the present prospect is that during the next few months the trend of prices will be slightly downward. This is the position which all Governments since the war have prayed for, and it is a challenge to a Government to use it constructively. The overriding object should certainly be to make sure that the steady inflationary drift of the past two decades, pushed on continuously by the wage-price cycle, is decisively halted.
The important words are "to use it constructively". I am sure that the country applauds this constructive use of £32 million. This is the first step taken in the direction of helping the most needy. It only remains for the employers and the employees, for the trade unions and
the shareholders and for the City to discipline themselves and use their common sense, and it will be the beginning of further steps forward for the benefit of all our old people and those others who need our help most.
The House has listened with pleasure to very much of what was said by the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Tiley), but at one stage in his speech he appeared to be chiding the Opposition because he thought that we were complaining that these benefits were being introduced in September, which he described as the right time. I assure him that our complaint is that they were not introduced last winter instead of in time for this winter. When he said that this is the right time he may have meant that it is the right time for himself, because I understand that the General Election is likely to be in October. The hon. Member may not be with us afterwards, he cannot qualify for National Insurance benefit because we are self-employed, but he can qualify for National Assistance, and he may therefore receive the increased grant at the right time. That may be the correct explanation of what he said.
Amid the welter of congratulations to the Minister and the Board we should not lose sight of the fact that there is a good deal of submerged poverty in this country. It comes out every so often when we meet people and are amazed and astounded, many of us, at how they have managed to exist for so long. It is indeed a very sad commentary upon our economy and the way we organise our lives that there are as many as 2½ million who are bound to rely upon National Assistance just to live at a minimum level of existence.
In spite of the fact that these scales are being increased, we are still not offering a princely sum. It will still not enable the old-age pensioner, the sick person or the unemployed man or woman to live an extravagant and outrageously riotous existence. These people will still be living near to the point at which every penny counts Indeed, if this is the best we can do for them at this stage of our economy, in my view it is not a very good best.
It is becoming more and more clear when we are dealing with these subjects that the argument is on fundamental philosophy and political beliefs. We could help these people in one of two ways. We could either concentrate the help on a very small section of the most needy by raising National Assistance scales or we could help by a general increase in the basic pension. If the Government had made the choice, there was no earthly reason why they should not have proceeded by way of an increase in general benefits. If the Government's priorities had been right, there was no reason why that should not have been done, but the Government chose to have different priorities from ours. The Government gave their priorities in the Budget; they came first, and this comes second. Our priorities would have been to help the old-aged by a general increase in pensions first, and anything left over could then be dealt with.
We must seriously consider the future rôle of National Assistance. It is now becoming a fundamental bulwark in the State social security system, but the original concept of National Assistance was very different. It was meant to deal with a minority of people who, for one reason or another, fell outside the main stream of National Insurance.
As the National Insurance Act has been in operation for ten years, the number of people on National Assistance should be growing smaller and smaller if the benefits are right. If the benefits are adequate, there should be few people not now covered by National Insurance benefit. But we find that the trend is the other way round. After an increase in National Assistance the figures go down for a little while, but gradually they creep up again. We are now reaching the position where, according to the Board's last Report, 2,361,000 people had to be supplemented in one way or another. That is not what was intended when the National Assistance Board was established. After eleven years of its working we should now be moving Amendments to abolish it or incorporate it into the National Insurance scheme instead of extending its services.
Nevertheless, the fact remains that we are living in a period when the Tories are in control. Their philosophy, and not ours, has carried the day. It is regrettable to think that they could have acted differently if they had wished. It was not that they could not act differently; it was that they did not wish to. We must now accept the scales as we find them and, indeed, welcome them for the assistance they will give to people in urgent need.
How many more people will be brought into the scope of National Assistance as a result of these changes? A considerable number will be because, with the assistance scales being the same as the pension scales and taking into account the disregards and the rent allowance, every person receiving benefit through National Insurance can, unless he has considerable means, qualify for National Assistance. Three-quarters of all those in receipt of State benefit will be able to qualify in some way or other. I see the Minister shaking his head, but the right hon. Gentleman has never given us the figures. If this means anything at all, with the scales being equivalent to the pension, with the disregards and the rent allowance, obviously it will bring a tremendous number of extra people within the bounds of National Assistance. The Minister should give us a clear idea of exactly what the number will be. No matter how much we welcome these schemes, we still regard the basic pension as inadequate and we shall go on fighting and struggling to ensure that as soon as possible it reaches the figure which we think is more appropriate.
I want to deal with one or two special cases. I ask the Minister to listen to this, because so far as I know it has not been mentioned before and it will grow in importance. I mention, first, the special case of a boy or girl aged between 15 and 16. When young people are 16, they can qualify under the original Act for assistance in their own right. If they are 15 and their parent is out of work or sick and on National Assistance, he receives an allowance for them. If the parent is at work, no matter how little he may be earning if he is outside the scales, and if unfortunately the boy is sick, as happens in a number of cases, or cannot find a job—we all know that that tendency is growing—from the age of 15 to 16 no one can receive any benefit for that boy. The boy cannot obtain it, because he is not 16. His parent cannot obtain it, because he is at work and earning.
Therefore, some Amendment of the Act is needed to reduce from 16 to 15 the age at which a person can be considered for assistance in his own right. I ask the Minister to consider this seriously, because if the boy stays at school and his parent is earning a low sum he can apply to the local education authority for a maintenance grant. But just when he needs the money most, with a growing boy of 15 who has the disappointment and frustration of not having a job, the parent receives nothing whatever. This is one of the most urgent cases needing consideration. I plead with the Minister to use this occasion to introduce a suitable Amendment to reduce the qualifying age from 16 to 15.
The second special case which has come to my notice in the past years, as we deal with these many, great difficult human cases in our constituencies, is the position of the lodger who happens to be on National Assistance. At present, the practice is to make an inclusive grant for board and lodging and a little extra for the lodger's own personal uses. In many cases, the amount given for board and lodging does not meet what the landlady has to expend on his keep. Whilst he is at work he can manage it, but when he is out of work and on National Assistance the position is radically different. I notice that this will be considered in the changes, but no details have been given. What extra payment will be made over and above the inclusive board and lodging charge? There must be an increase in order to give such a person his share of the increased prosperity.
There is also the other side of the picture. For instance, if landladies who are letting premises are on National Assistance, we have the difficulty that some are allowed one figure, some are allowed another figure, and there is complete confusion as to the proper figure to be allowed for board and lodging. Will the Minister consider in these cases, within reasonable figures, the same kind of test that is applied to rent? The amount which should be paid is the actual amount paid for board and lodging and not some notional sum dependent upon the area.
I have a letter from an old-age pensioner who wishes to let one room to another old-age pensioner. She has been debarred from doing it so far because she feels that, if she does so, a disproportionate amount of her pension or supplementary pension will be deducted by the National Assistance Board. As a result, she has not let this much needed accommodation to a person who is greatly in need of it. Will the Minister consider having a disregard in respect of the rent received from the letting of rooms by people in receipt of National Assistance? I do not know what the present practice is, but it does not seem to be working, at least as far as this case is concerned. A considerable amount of accommodation may be available in that way where elderly people, whose families have left them, are living in houses too big for themselves. If they were assured that the little rent they would receive would not be taken into account by the National Assistance Board in assessing their supplementary, they would be more likely to bring this accommodation into the arena for people to occupy.
During the last few weeks I have met a number of people who ought to be receiving National Assistance but, for various reasons, have never applied. They now realise their mistake, because they cannot qualify to obtain their post-war credits until they have been on National Assistance for twelve weeks. Now that they have the possibility of receiving about £50 in post-war credits, more and more people are willing to go to the National Assistance Board, even if only for the twelve weeks necessary to qualify to obtain their post-war credit payments. That is one means whereby more and more people could get used to the idea of taking what is their right when they take National Assistance when they are in need.
The other matter concerns something which I regard as scandalous There are people in receipt of National Assistance who, because of present scales for legal aid, have to pay monthly contributions out of their National Assistance to meet legal aid payments. In my constituency there is a person who has to pay 17s. 6d. a month to cover a charge of 10 guineas for legal aid. Such a sum may not mean much to us, but National Assistance is supposed to be the barest minimum and it is impossible to live when out of that National Assistance one has to find 17s. 6d. a month. I notice that it is said that the position of legal aid is being reviewed. Can we be told exactly what shape that review is taking and are people in receipt of National Assistance not to be assessed on it when being assessed for their legal aid payments? If not, we shall have something very much stronger to say about it.
Another difficulty arises from people who voluntarily leave their employment. Without thinking much about it, they walk out of a job. The time has gone when they could walk out of one job and into another, and so they get a six weeks' suspension of benefit. They go to the employment exchange on a certain day, often on a Thursday or Friday, to find that there is no money for them because of the suspension of benefit, or because the waiting time has not been completed. They then go to the National Assistance Board, leaving it until a Friday to do so, seeking some payment to see them over the weekend.
The normal practice is for the Assistance Board authorities to say that a payment cannot be made until there has been an official visit on the following Monday or Tuesday. With the best will in the world, it is not always possible for the Board to make a payment. Can we have some co-ordination with the Ministry of Labour so that such people are clearly advised at the employment exchange that they should go to the Assistance Board at the earliest possible time, early in the week, so that their claims can be investigated and payments made by the weekend?
We have been dealing with one of the most touching and human of all the matters with which Members of Parliament have to deal. Week in and week out we have cases of the most dire necessity and poverty brought to our notice, and there must be many others which do not come to our notice. I support anything the Minister can do to publicise the facilities and to get people to accept their rights.
In conclusion, I express my thanks to the officers of the National Assistance Board in my area. They are extremely courteous and extremely helpful, and I am sure that they will not worry about the additional burdens which are to be placed upon them, but will welcome them as part of the general machinery to give National Assistance to all who need it.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) on an extremely interesting and understanding speech. He spoke about board and lodging allowances, and I, too, would like my hon. Friend to give us some information on that matter and will refer to it later on.
As the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) said, one of our hardest problems is to determine whether one should try to help those who need assistance from the State by an overall increase in the basic National Insurance retirement benefit, thereby bringing into the net those who are not in so needy a position as those we are now able to help by these grants, or whether we should concentrate the resources of the State, such as they are, on the group of people who by definition are those most in need.
The House will recall that in an earlier debate I advocated that something like this should be done, and I welcome these proposals very much. In doing so, we should recognise the relative costs of what is being done and what might be clone by a comparable increase in National Insurance retirement benefit. It would cost about £200 million, taken with the consequential increases which would have to come, for the retirement benefit to be raised by 10s. That is substantially greater than the £32 million involved in these proposals. Insurance benefits are financed by contributions from three sources, the Exchequer, the employer and the employee, whereas this sum of £32 million will be financed solely by the Exchequer.
Those who consider that the best way to help those most in need is to give an insurance increase which would cover everybody must appreciate the difference between the relative costs of the two proposals, and it is important that they should emphasise those differences not only to those who may benefit by the increase, but also to those who will be called upon every single day of their working lives, from now on, to contribute towards that cost.
I take issue with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East who implied a slight criticism when he said that these proposals might increase the number of people receiving National Assistance. He said that he wanted the number of people receiving National Assistance to be kept to an absolute minimum. What is good about these proposals is that the new disregards will permit more people to come under the National Insurance umbrella. People who have suffered a good deal hitherto because they have been right on the border will be brought in—although admittedly, whatever rate one fixes will always leave marginal or borderline cases.
I am thinking particularly of people of whom I see a lot in my constituency. As hon. Members who go there for their holidays or their conferences know, there is a very high proportion of elderly people in the population of Bournemouth. Among them is what I describe for want of a better term as the "gentlefolk" class—and hon. Members opposite will understand the term. They are people who in their active lives were children's nurses and people of that sort of calibre—governesses, school teachers and so on. They have been living very close to the knuckle but never right down to the bare bone so as to benefit from present National Assistance scales. Many of them will now be eligible for National Assistance.
Take this example of a single woman with about £550 capital and not now eligible for National Assistance. She has a retirement pension of £2 10s. and her rent is £1 10s. a week. Under these proposals her entitlement will be £2 10s. pension, £1 10s. rent, making £4 in all. From that has to be deducted the pension, leaving £1 10s. and then 6d. for every £25 of capital, ignoring the first £100, a total deduction of 9s., leaving her with an additional payment from the National Assistance Board of £1 1s. 0d., raising her income from £2 10s. to £3 11s.
I know that when we talk in terms of millions of pounds under the heading of national expenditure, £3 11s. is not very much, but it would make a great deal of difference to a person like her. It would help many of the people, some of whom are in my constituency and 400,000 of whom are already drawing assistance of some kind who have no State pension at all. I hope that many more of what I would call pensionless people will, as a result of these more generous capital disregards, be encouraged to look to the Assistance Board for the help for which they will now become eligible. It will then become possible for people to have as much as £600 capital, £375 worth of war savings, as well as their own house, and to become eligible for National Assistance. I do not think that is being mean at all.
I should like to give one further example. This is what will happen to a married couple who are now drawing the retirement pension of £4. The man, fortuitously, has a part-time job which brings an extra £2 a week and he also has superannuation of £1 10s. His rent is £2 a week. Under the proposals his entitlement will be the scale rent of National Assistance, £4 5s., plus £2 for rent, making £6 5s. in all. From that the pension of £4 will be deducted leaving £2 5s., and then there is the amount to be deducted on account of his earnings, which is 5s. on the £2, leaving £2 in all. From that, 15s. in respect of his superannuation will have to be deducted and his allowance from the Board will become £1 5s.
That means that the income for the man and wife will be made up as follows: pension £4, earnings £2, superannuation £1 10s. and National Assistance grant £1 5s., making a total income of £8 15s. I do not think that is an ungenerous scale and I am sure that is why this proposal has been so widely welcomed in all quarters of the House.
The hon. Gentleman has given some interesting examples, but will he now say why he prefers National Assistance to be given in such cases and not an increased pension?
As I endeavoured to indicate earlier, if we gave an increased pension to the man who needs that type of help, one would also have to give the increased pension to many thousands of others who do not need that sort of help. The cost to the State and to the taxpayer, to the employed man as well as to the employer, would be £200 million and not £32 million which the present proposals will cost.
I also welcome the income disregards, but in this respect I have a question to put to my right hon. Friend. I am glad to see that the charitable disregard has been increased from 10s. 6d. to 15s., though I wish it had been increased to £1. Am I right in saying that this discretionary disregard is restricted to one charity only, and that if more than one charitable organisation gives assistance of some kind or another in cash terms to an individual, the Board takes into account only what is paid in by the one charitable organisation, or does it take into account what is paid by both, or more if there is more?
On the question of rent, I am sure that this proposal will make a great deal of difference. While I am concerned mainly with elderly people, I should like to take up a point which the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees made, and that is the question of the Board's treatment of board and lodging allowances. I join in the tribute which has been paid to the officers of the National Assistance Board, but I feel that in some respects in their treatment of board and lodging allowances they could appear to be still more generous and understanding.
I am thinking of the case where an elderly person, who has been sick in hospital, on coming out of hospital agrees to take up residence in private accommodation for which she pays a reasonable sum for board and lodging, inclusive of rent, of four guineas a week. I do not think that is an unreasonable amount, although I know that for most of the council homes it costs more than four guineas a week. However, that seems to be an average charge in my constituency for private accommodation. Every possible encouragement should be given to this sort of person to accept private accommodation. She should not be encouraged to turn instead to the council home.
The Board, on the other hand, finds it difficult to give adequate assistance to her to enable her to meet the four guineas cost of board and lodging, which she has agreed to pay, while in hospital. The best way for the Board to deal with this problem would be to separate the part of the four guineas for rent from the rest which represents food, etc. If that could be done, that part of the four guineas which is attributable to rent and accommodation would be met by the Board. This is what would happen if she were living by herself and if she were paying rent of £2 or 30s. a week. The Board would probably meet that, and it seems a pity that if she is in private accommodation a certain allowance cannot be set aside for rent as though she were living alone.
The main problem which has been referred to principally by my right hon. Friend is the difficulty of getting those who do not want to take assistance from the State, to ask for it and to accept it. My right hon. Friend invited suggestions, and I have one or two to make. First, let me deal with the question of changing the name. I think that this problem of changing the name of the National Assistance Board concerns only a small number of people—the most elderly people of all. They are the people who are the least happy about referring to National Assistance. The present and the younger generation are quite agreeable to "National Assistance" and take it as it is intended to be, as yet another social service. I am in favour of changing the name on the order books, but I wonder whether it would be possible to change the name twice. Is it possible to differentiate between order books for elderly people, for those now beyond retirement age, and for those who are not, or would that involve too difficult a mechanical operation?
The hon. Gentleman has taken at least one of the words out of my mouth. I was about to say that if this change in the name is to be restricted in some way to elderly people who draw this type of assistance, "old age benefit" would be a good name, because there is very little difference between "O.A.B." and "O.A.P.". If indeed it cannot be separated, so that a different book is handed to elderly persons, but the same book has to be handed over for the whole of the people drawing assistance, I think that some such phrase as "social service benefit" or "supplementary benefit" is preferable. I feel myself that, as the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has just said, the word "benefit" would be appro- priate. I think that the word "benefit" ought to come into it somewhere and if the elderly people could come to regard it as old-age benefit, I think it would be quite helpful.
There are two further suggestions which I have to make. Officers of the Board, when visiting people in their homes, should, if they do not do so already, take with them a blank pro forma which they have to complete. I think so many people are upset by the fact that the officer sits back and asks questions and takes notes while they are giving the answers. They think, perhaps, that he pries into their private affairs too much, but if he were able to invite their assistance in completing the form which he had to fill in, that difficulty would be so much overcome.
I understand that it is done already to some extent, but I think it should be made quite clear to the individual concerned that he or she is, as it were, co-operating with the Assistance Board officer and helping him to do his job, which is to bring as full a report on the case as is possible.
As far as my experience goes, and I am very pleased to be able to say it, the officers of the Board make the applicants feel at home and as comfortable as possible.
I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman.
The other point is that I understand that the Board has now placed in the post offices forms which are available to anyone asking for them and which they can complete and post back to the local authority. On these forms, the National Assistance Board is asking the people concerned if they wish for an officer of the Board to call upon them. I wonder if it is possible to make the form slightly larger so that it might include some idea of what the Board is now able to do. If there could be set out in tabular form quite simply some of the basic benefits such as we now see stated in the White Paper, and information about the basic scale rates, it might encourage people to take to these things more readily.
Secondly, it is not everybody who wishes to have an officer of the Board call on them in their own homes. There are many who are afraid of that, as a matter of fact, and who live rather in fear of the quarterly or half-yearly visit of an officer of the National Assistance Board, because they think their neighbours will know who is calling on them. It will have an effect on them because they think that it will be known to their neighbours that they are drawing National Assistance.
I think that this could be quite simply overcome by the use of a similar device to that used by the football pools. If anyone does not want publicity, if lucky enough to win £75,000, all he has to do is to place a little tick in the appropriate box on the form. Perhaps the form could provide a means of indicating that a person does not want an officer to call, but would like an interview at the office. If something of that description could be done, it would help in overcoming the shyness of these people.
I think the proposals before the House are, on balance, just about right, but I know that it is difficult to find the right balance. We do not want to raise National Assistance scales so high as to discourage thrift and encourage idleness; but, at the same time, we do want to have them high enough to make them realistic. The essential feature of these proposals, as we recognise, is that they are realistic in terms of what our standards are today, and not as they were ten years past or in even earlier days. As our standards rise and the prosperity of the country increases, it is surely right that we should draw the net up where it sags the deepest so as to raise the standards of those at the lowest level. These proposals do that, and for that reason I welcome them.
We are discussing together the proposed new Regulations, the improvements in the disregards and the Bill which, when it becomes an Act, will bring in many improvements.
I want to make some observations on this subject. First, I desire to congratulate the National Assistance Board, then make a few historical observations so that my own contribution to the Second Reading debate can be regarded in its correct perspective, and, if I have sufficient time, to make some further obser- vations which I think will be very interesting to my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) in particular. I also want to consider the National Assistance scales and the improvements in the disregards, and make some constructive suggestions which will have the objective of still further improving the position.
In making these observations, I hope that if any hon. or right hon. Member disagrees with one word of what I say he will introduce some cut-and-thrust into the debate, because that is what we are here for. I have evidence to prove every word that I shall say, and if any hon. Member disagrees with me I hope that he will be good enough to say so.
My first point is that the British people are the best behaved people in the world and that their standards are higher. I believe that if a referendum of the people could be taken on whether they wish to raise still higher the standards of those who have to make application to the Assistance Board, the overwhelming majority would vote in favour of still higher National Assistance benefits and disregards, and for even further improvement in administration If I have time, I want to produce evidence to prove what I have said in regard to that subject.
On 15th June, the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance, in reply to his hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) said:
I know that my hon. Friend's viewpoint is shared by a certain number of people. My own view, however, is that the institution itself, by the devotion to duty of its officers, is earning an increasingly good name.
I agree with the Minister with regard to that, and I remember the phrase sufficiently well to be able to say that a rose by any other name smells just as sweet, and I think that the same applies to the National Assistance Board. Those of us who have been here during the passage of this and similar legislation cannot make our observations without signifying our appreciation of the great improvements that have been made since the scheme was first introduced.
Later, on 15th June, the Minister said:
In the first place, most of the disregards are not for the National Assistance Board but, being statutory, are a matter for the Government."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th June, 1959; Vol. 607, c. 39.]
I welcome that point being emphasised by the Minister, and, within the limits of the improvements that are being introduced, I think we should be as magnanimous as possible. Those who are ready to be critical, and some of us are hypercritical at times, should, when we have the opportunity of appreciating improvements that are made, introduce a little magnanimity in regard to them. I therefore offer my congratulations to the National Assistance Board for being responsible for suggesting these improvements.
The White Paper states that the Government have accepted the proposals made by the National Assistance Board. I take full responsibility for something that I am now going to say. Some of us remember the gentleman—and I must admit that I have got closer to him now that he has proved himself to be a gentleman—who, unfortunately, is not in the House at the moment but who used to speak from the back benches opposite and always made speeches about the need for economy and who was given a name by some of my hon. Friends on this side of the House, which I will not repeat because it would not be fair. Our suspicions were aroused when he was appointed Chairman of the Board and this coincided with some evidence which we had, based, we thought, upon reality because he did appear to be ungenerous in several directions.
Now that some time has elapsed since that gentleman was appointed to the Board, I want to say that we were wrong. He, as Chairman of the Board, has not reflected in his administration what he advocated in the kind of speech he used to make in this House. He and the National Assistance Board have maintained the traditional policy which the Board introduced soon after it was taken over from the Unemployment Assistance Board. I congratulate the Board and the Chairman on the new scale and the proposed disregards.
On 6th December, 1955, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater), a number of other hon. Members and I put down a Motion indicating that the kind of action which the Minister proposes to take today should have been taken then. We had trouble at our party meetings in regard to this. Many of my hon. Friends whom I greatly respect did not think it advisable in those days to force a vote in the House. I should have done that.
One of my greatest friends in the House, to whom I owed a great deal, was George Lansbury. George Lansbury insisted, on the first day that I was in the House, on my making a speech. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly will remember that, in those days, we were bubbling over with righteous indignation against the criminal administration of the means test. When we came into the House, we should have been lacking in our duty to our own people if we had not reflected that indignation in our speeches in the House. It was men like our old friend George Lansbury who said, "If you are sure you are right, stand by your belief, no matter what it means". In those days, no matter what anyone else thought, if we thought a thing was wrong, our party voted against it in order to indicate to people outside where we stood. Action should have been taken long ago, but now, for the time being, there is no need to take it because these improvements have been introduced as a result of consultations which have taken place.
Those of us who remember the Poor Law days cannot help but appreciate the way the National Assistance Board is administered today. We have travelled a long way on a dark road. First of all, there was the Poor Law Public Assistance, with its criminal treatment of our people. I shall never forget the day in 1931 when I met an ex-Service man walking along the road in Longton. He had just come out from the old Public Assistance offices in Longton Town Hall. He told me a sorry story, and I went in and sat among the applicants in order to see how they were treated. I shall never forget the criminal way that the Norcop brothers, who were administering the old Poor Law in Longton Town Hall, treated people in those days.
Then we had the Board of Guardians, the Unemployment Assistance Board, and the 1931 means test, the dark days of charity, with cap in hand and humiliation for the people. Now we have the relatively enlightened administration of the National Assistance Board. I give credit where it is due, and I place these things on record so that improvements will be continued and used as a basis for introducing further advances wherever possible.
What a story, if only we had time, my right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly and I could tell about what went on in Room 14 upstairs when we had to fight almost the whole of the House on the implementation of the Beveridge Report. At that time, a prominent member of the Cabinet said that he would resign because of certain action we had taken. Fortunately, we were able to carry our party with us and we were able to use our influence with the Coalition Government. As a result, hope was brought to men serving in the Forces, and, later, we had the implementation of the Beveridge Report. There was then a new enlightened administration of National Assistance. It is good to be able to relate this story here, because some of us have made our contribution towards bringing about these improvements.
I say again that if a man is sure that something is right, he must stand up for it, no matter what it means and no matter what other people think. A few of us, in those dark days of the war, who supported the war as strongly as anyone, thought that on this particular issue a stand should be taken. A stand was taken and, partly as a result of that, new ideas were introduced.
In the introductory remarks in the White Paper, there is a reference to
giving them a share in increasing national prosperity".
Although it is rather late, I welcome that, but I still say that the share those on National Assistance will receive in our increasing prosperity is not as high as it should be. We are beginning to lag behind other countries. I can produce evidence to prove this. If the Minister has any doubt about it, I have statistical evidence here which I will gladly lend him, on condition that he returns it because it is so valuable. I should like him to consider it.
We have pleaded for a long time that the disregards should be improved. We must give credit where it is due, particularly to my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) and the other hon. Members of the miners' group. They are very close to all these problems. They live with the people, and they have never left the people. They consult their branches and lodges week after week. They are in close touch with their officials, and it is they who are closer to the problem. They have for some time suggested that an improvement in the disregards should be introduced. Now that we have this improvement, I welcome it.
I greatly appreciated, for once, a leading article in The Times of 16th June, which pointed out that the disregards had not been changed for eleven years. There is concrete evidence to show the correctness of the line we have been taking in this respect. However, while I welcome the Bill and the support of The Times, I do not consider that the principles contained in the White Paper are yet fully applied. If I have time, I shall produce evidence of that.
I have certain questions to put to the Minister. Can we have a greater measure of national uniformity in the methods of calculating the rent allowance, of calculating the disregards and in the consideration of the discretionary grants? I admit that there have been great improvements in this respect, but I still feel, though it is difficult to obtain statistical evidence to prove it, that there is a variation in the administration. I hope that it will be put right.
The Bill provides for increases in the amounts prescribed in the Schedule to the National Assistance Act, 1948, for the purposes of legal aid. I am pleased about this, but I have recently had brought to my notice a terrible case, about which I should like to tell the House. I know a man who, unfortunately, ran out of membership of his trade union. The trade unions do remarkable work, especially in giving legal aid. Everyone knows that, if a man or woman suffers injury, his or her best friend is the trade union. The trade union provides the finest legal assistance that can possibly be given. As I say, this man ran out of membership of his union. Then he had a terrible accident in Piccadilly, Manchester. He sought legal aid through the Legal Aid and Advice Service. He lost his case. Then, unfortunately, the man accepted a lump sum settlement, which provided him with £126. Up to now, his legal aid costs are at least £170. Can the Board's officials be asked to take a greater interest in what the Bill provides in the case of legal aid? For example, following the case to which I have referred, can the officials be asked to take a closer view of this kind of thing in each locality so as to prevent it happening? I should like to explain that in more detail later. The Times said, on the same date, that any improvement in assistance must increase the number of pensions qualifying for help. That is just what we want. Therefore, we welcome it.
I would like to ask the Minister whether we can have a renewed educational campaign to let the people see that National Assistance is a right on certain conditions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly will remember that not only did the B.B.C. play its part, but that we all played our part as Members of this House. Every Member has some influence in his or her locality. If we each agree to play our part in our own locality, together with the Minister and the Ministry playing their part on the B.B.C. and in other ways, we can make a big contribution to eliminating the suspicion which still prevails in certain quarters concerning people's rights to apply for supplementary assistance. Therefore, I would like the Minister to consider whether we cannot all agree to work together in a great national campaign to put this on an even higher plane than it is now.
I believe that there is no longer any cap-in-hand humiliation about applying for benefit. People ought to apply for benefit, if necessary, and look the officers straight in the face. The officers who visit people in their homes try to make an applicant feel as much at home and as comfortable as possible. They try to win the confidence of the people and so conduct themselves that they are worthy of the retention of that confidence. In that way, the administrative atmosphere has been greatly improved. In spite of this, however, there are still hundreds of poor folk who would be entitled to National Assistance if only they would apply for it. It is for that reason that I have made this constructive suggestion.
I also believe that many would be entitled to their post-war credits if only they would take advantage of the pro-
visions that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has introduced. I know that there are bound to be certain anomalies. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North quoted one on 16th June, for example, when she asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer
if he will review the regulations for the payment of post-war credits to include those people who are permanently unemployable due to illness but who have not applied for National Assistance.
The Chancellor answered most sympathetically. I do not want to take up time by quoting the whole of his reply. I content myself by giving just an extract. The Chancellor said:
Yes, I entirely agree with what the hon. Lady has said."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th June, 1959; Vol. 607, c. 240–1.]
We would like that sympathy to be translated as far as possible into reality. The Minister and the Chancellor, together with the officials, should get together round a table and see whether they cannot learn from the cases quoted by my hon. Friends so that more justice may be done. According to his Answer, the Chancellor was very sympathetic, but he indicated that he was powerless to act at the present time.
In my view, we ought in some way to get the whole of the people who are entitled to do so to apply for National Assistance. If they do not, they are depriving themselves of their post-war credits. While I admit that certain limitations are imposed by the Regulations introduced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, I hope that the Minister and others will get together to consider the matter which I have just raised.
Millions of people can only just manage on their weekly wages or earnings. If they are on short time for any length of time, their savings are soon eaten into. This produces a deplorable situation. If they suffer from ill health or lose their employment, they soon lose heart. The mothers and children are the first to suffer. The mother sees to that. She will not let her husband suffer if she can avoid it. She will not let her children suffer, but she suffers herself. When she can stick it no longer, however, the children suffer too. Then the standards begin to be reduced. As I indicated at the beginning, however, even with that position, the British are the best behaved people in the world.
I have facts to show that the National Assistance rates and scales should now be increased substantially. If anyone has any doubt about that, I would refer him to the statistical evidence which can be found in The Times of 3rd December, 1958. The Times had an excellent series of articles analysing the nation's National Assistance and National Insurance, pointing out what was intended in 1944 when the proposals were first made and indicating how they had not kept pace with developments.
If anyone has any further doubt about this, I refer hon. Members to The Times Review of Industry for February, 1955, in which will be found statistical evidence to prove that our social services are not keeping pace with those of other countries in some parts of Europe. If further evidence is needed, hon. Members can find in the Library several reports prepared by the International Labour Office, which has conducted an inquiry into the proportion of national income devoted to social service in each country of the world. There it will be found that we are beginning to lag behind.
In regard to the British people being the best behaved in the world, even the Economist—a paper which does not support us on this side; it is too highbrow, and so on—gave evidence on 17th August, 1957, to show that the amount spent on smoking and drinking by the British people is almost the lowest in the world. If we go further and consider drug addicts, it will be found that we have fewer in this country than in any other part of the world. That is what annoyed some of us when the Graham man came and talked about Hyde Park. Who is he to talk about the way our people are behaving? If he consults the Economist, he will find that even in that respect, according to the figures, we are nearly at the bottom of the league in comparison with some other countries.
For those reasons and many others I have no hestitation in saying that the British people relatively now have the highest standards in the world. If we want to conduct our affairs in harmony and in tune with those relatively high standards, however, our action should reflect itself in high standards in dealing with those who suffer through no fault of their own.
I never forget that my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) gave me two books in 1942. They dealt with our experiences in the evacuation which took place in 1939 and 1940. Southern England in particular was surprised at many of the children who were turned out by great cities like London, Manchester, Birmingham and other places. Those books, which were compiled by the women's institutes, Margaret Bondfield and others, are concrete evidence of the serious state of affairs in the cities where people who suffered through unemployment and sickness and who had no means of income lived. Relatively speaking, that position still applies, and therefore I ask the Minister whether the time has not arrived when all local authorities should pool their ideas in order to get closer to the people and in order that more welfare work can be done, not only by increasing the benefits and disregards but by entering into their homes. Many of these people feel that they have no friends left. Many of them have lost hope. It would be a great step forward if only they knew that an official of the Assistance Board would come to their homes to see how the Board could assist them.
While I place on record my appreciation of the improvements which will be made, we should not be complacent. We should use them as a foundation for further improvements, in harmony and in tune with the high standards of the British people.
I would not dream of commenting on anything the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) has said. In fact, I dare not do so. He started by inviting us to challenge anything that he said and spoke about the cut and thrust of debate, but then looked menacingly over to these benches and said that if we dared to challenge him he had brought with him proof of everything that he said. In this case I think that discretion is the better part of valour.
I should, however, like to comment on one or two things said by the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd). He made some very interesting specific suggestions and asked some interesting specific questions of the Minister on matters of detail, but I thought that he was a little unfair to our party when he suggested that, far from meriting congratulation on bringing forward these new Regulations and increases in the National Assistance basic rates before this winter, we ought to have done this before last winter. What is more, he said that the increases were not big enough anyway. Opinions may vary about when the increases could or should have been made and how large they should have been, but, as that criticism has been made, I feel that we on this side may say that we are not ashamed of our record in this respect as compared with that of hon. Members opposite when they were in power.
Perhaps it might be as well to remind the House of the figures. When hon. Members opposite were in power, they raised the basic rates of National Assistance by 6s. for a single householder and 10s. for a man and wife. While hon. Members opposite were in power, the cost of living rose by 40 per cent. Since we came into power—I discount the present increases proposed—the basic rate has been raised by 15s. for the single householder and 26s. for two people. During that period, the cost of living has risen by 29 per cent. We made an increase which was two and half times as great as that of hon. Members opposite when they were in power, and during that period the cost of living rose by only three-quarters of that 40 per cent. when they were in power. It is only fair to make that point.
As the hon. Member also criticised us about National Insurance payments with regard to retirement pensions, although I should be out of order to go into that point in detail, I should like to say that now the retirement pension for a single person has a value 11s. higher than it was in October, 1951, when hon. Members opposite were last in power, and we have been able to maintain that value for the last eighteen months.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) said that this legislation is a matter for rejoicing. I think that all hon. Members will agree that it is an occasion for greater rejoicing than any of the six previous occasions on which the National Assistance rates were raised. This is the first time that they have been raised entirely for the purpose of increasing the standard of living of the poorest people. Despite any boasts that I may have been trying to make about the record of our party compared with hon. Members opposite, it is an undoubted fact that, every time previously that those rates have been raised, it has been partially to try to catch up with the ever-rising cost of living. The last time they were raised was in January, 1958—by 5s. and 9s. respectively. The increase is the same this time, but during the whole of that period the cost-of-living index has remained almost constant and has risen only from 108 to 109.
That is not the only reason that we have for rejoicing. Another reason is that for the first time we have made many and varied and welcome increases in the disregards. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said that he and his hon. Friends pressed for this for a very long time, but we on this side can claim to be the first to do it. The Minister and many other hon. Members have been into the question of the disregards in great detail. I do not want to repeat what other hon. Members have said, except to say that I very much welcome the increase in the capital disregard from £400 to £600.
We have all been brought up to believe that we should save for a rainy day, but so many of our old people have had so few periods of sunshine during their working lives that there has not been much opportunity to save very much. To me, there is nothing sadder than to see old people, in order to make ends meet, dipping by, say, £1 a week into the savings which it has taken them a lifetime to build up.
One of the most welcome features of the debate has been the way in which almost every hon. Member has paid tribute to the officers of the National Assistance Board. I certainly agree with everything that has been said on this matter. My right hon. Friend paid tribute to them today and he said on 15th June that the House could be completely confident that the officers of the National Assistance Board were conducting its affairs humanely and sympathetically. As a Member of this House for four years, working closely with the officers of my local National Assistance Boards as well as with their clients, I can say that I have been quite overcome by the tact, kindness, understanding and sympathy which they invariably bring to their most complicated and exacting task. They do not get a great material reward for it. I think that they are very much underpaid and the people whom they help often get a good deal more than the salary which the officers receive.
Let us consider the position of the clerical officer, who is perhaps the backbone of the National Assistance Board. Here are some of the duties which he has to perform: visiting and interviewing; office interviews and resulting reports; the calculations of excess payments; liable relative aspects of cases, which is a particularly difficult matter; the preparation of welfare reports; the keeping of a register; the completion of legal aid forms: That is just half a dozen duties out of no fewer than fifty items of that type of duty which he has got to be able to perform. He has also a good deal of responsibility generally in the custody of money.
For that, the clerical officer, at the age of, say, 25 or 26, as a starting salary gets £9 9s. 6d. per week. If he is visiting a married man with, say, three children, who is living in a council house, he is dealing with a man who is entitled to just about as much as he, and if by any chance the man happens to be out of work and out of benefit the clerical officer makes a recommendation for the payment to him of an amount just about equal to his own salary.
We should remember that the clerical officers and the others who do the actual visiting, and, indeed, all the officers of the National Assistance Board, are dealing with from time to time and paying out money to people who, they know in their hearts, do not deserve it, because it is no good pretending there are not such people. There must be a few black sheep among the recipients of National Assistance. I would divide these black sheep into two main types, the fraudulent and the feckless.
I do not think we ought to show very much sympathy with the fraudulent. Hon Members will all have in their minds a recent case referred to today of a woman who was prosecuted because for a period of about four years she had persistently been telling lies to the officers of the Board and swindled the taxpayers out of over £200. When, not surprisingly, she was sentenced to two months' imprisonment there was such an outcry in the country that one would have thought she was either a martyr or a national heroine. We had dockyard workers collecting a sum of money on her behalf, and a bishop of the Church of England making a violent and ignorant attack on the magistrate, and saying that if he himself had been in her position he would have been tempted to have done the same thing.
I can only wish that the bishop could share my experience of interviewing constituents week after week who are finding difficulty in making ends meet, possibly having to spend their small savings, but who would never dream of telling a pack of lies to the officers of the National Assistance Board or of swindling the community. I am sure that if he had that experience he would reserve his sympathy for those people, not that very small minority who, I suggest, are the people really responsible for the very rare cases in which officers of the National Assistance Board do show a lack of kindness and sympathy—because they have had to deal with certain cases of that sort, and have, to a certain extent, lost their illusions about human nature.
In addition to the fraudulent they must, of course, meet the feckless. By the feckless I mean those people legally entitled to National Assistance but possibly not morally entitled. To give an idea of what I mean I would quote merely one single case in Nottingham at the moment. There is an immigrant from a Commonwealth country. He has a wife and child in his own country. He has had one child by a countrywoman of his in this country, and there is another on the way. He has one child by an Englishwoman living in this country whom he deserted. He is now living with another Englishwoman who is pregnant by him. The conditions in this case are such that it seems obvious that before very long all those women and children will be a charge on the nation.
I think it is marvellous that the clerical officers and the other officers who do the visiting and are faced with this kind of case nevertheless do their work with such great kindness and sympathy. It is not merely admirable; I think it is really surprising.
Of course, all the innocent victims of people like the man I was talking about must and should be looked after by the State, by National Assistance or by some other means, but I want to suggest one sort of way in which I think there can be some reduction in the sum paid in Assistance which should be put to more deserving causes.
I cannot in my constituency address any branch of the Old-Age Pensioners' Association without their asking me the question—and it is perfectly natural and quite right that they should do so, "Why cannot the basic single pension be put up 10s.?"—or £1 or up to £4—or whatever the demand happens to be in the place concerned at the time or by the federation concerned. After I have gone through all the long-winded arguments we know so well to show that it would be very difficult or impossible, somebody will get up at the back of the room and say to me, "You say there is not enough money to put up the pension. You find it fast enough for these people coming here from other countries."
That is a remark to which there is absolutely no answer. At least, there are plenty of answers, but there is none which will satisfy the questioners. It causes real bitterness in the towns concerned, when it is realised that there are people coining over to this country from Commonwealth countries and immediately drawing National Assistance. Normally, that does not happen for very long. It is a mater of only a few weeks, because they are then in work. At the moment it is no problem at all because immigration has dried up to a trickle, but now that employment is getting fuller and fuller, that problem will arise again, and I suggest that it would be a good plan if immigrants into this country, when they do get into work, repay at a suitable rate that money which they obtained from National Assistance. I know that there are objections which can be advanced to that, that it would be administratively difficult, and so on. At the same time, it would not be creating a precedent, because the National Assistance Board has power in certain conditions to make loans as opposed to grants.
I know perfectly well that the people I have been talking about most recently in my speech, the people whom one might think do not really earn National Assistance, the people who do not deserve it, the people who are not entitled to it, form a very small minority. I should think they are fewer than all those people who are entitled to National Assistance but who do not actually draw it.
I want to finish by referring to them, as many other hon. Members have. I know it has been said that those people now form a very small number. We do not know what the number actually is, but I think that most hon. Members will share my experience that one is always coming across them here and there in one's division, and that they are generally elderly people. Even if the number is small, it is composed almost entirely of the proud and independent-minded—in fact, the people whom, I think, we wish to help most.
My right hon. Friend has said that he does not feel now that there is very much objection to the words "National Assistance," and that it is not now really considered a stigma to ask for it. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden) when he says that he thinks that is so in the case of younger people. That is largely true, but it is not true of a good many elderly people and they are the ones whom we most wish to help.
It is difficult to suggest a suitable euphemism for "National Assistance". Hon. Members have attempted it many times. "Supplementary pensions" and "special needs pensions" have been suggested as suitable terms. My own idea, though not any better than the others, would be "temporary allowance", because it is a good thing to recognise the fact that the payment is generally temporary and the amount paid is almost always so.
An hon. Member opposite said that the expression "National Assistance" was first used because it was thought more acceptable, and I do not think that a further change in the name would do any good in the long run. It may be a rather revolutionary suggestion, but I feel that it would be better if the present National Assistance Board were absorbed in the Ministry of Pensions, because I believe that those people who do not like going to the National Assistance Board would not mind going to the Ministry of Pensions. They frequently do call at the Ministry of Pensions and answer many personal questions about themselves, but to go to a separate building labelled "National Assistance Board" in another part of the town is to some of them a very different matter.
We know that it does not happen very often, because in most cases a visitor calls on them. That is fortunate, but even so I believe that a visitor calling from the Ministry of Pensions would be much more readily and happily received than one calling from the National Assistance Board. Moreover, I am sure that the people whom we are considering now would be much more happy to write their postcard, or ask a Member of Parliament to write, to the Ministry of Pensions than to the National Assistance Board. I ask my right hon. Friend to consider that suggestion seriously. I believe that it would bring into National Assistance a fair number of people who are entitled to it but who are not receiving it. I believe that those people which it would bring in are the ones to whom we are most anxious to accord that help.
I should like to begin by expressing my deep agreement with what the hon. and gallant Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux) said about the staff of the National Assistance Board. I was glad that he followed up the tributes which we have all paid to that staff from time to time by giving details of their work, their status and their pay and giving real emphasis to that point.
I did not agree, however, with the emphasis the hon. and gallant Member later laid on those people whom he described as rather fraudulent or feckless. He said that they were a small minority. We should stress that point, because there are people who take the view expressed by the man in the back of the hall at the pensions meeting to whom the hon. and gallant Member referred. There are people who, because of ignorance or smugness and because they have never been in that position themselves, are intolerant and assume too readily that people on National Assistance receive what they do not deserve.
It would be well to remind ourselves of a short passage in the Annual Report of the National Assistance Board, 1958, which deals with this point as applied to unemployed people receiving National Assistance. A special inquiry had been made in 1958, and the Report states:
The results of this enquiry … thus provide further confirmation of the view expressed in earlier Reports that in only a small minority of cases can lengthy unemployment be ascribed to wilful idleness, unconnected with any physical or mental handicap.
The Report also reminds us that in that minority of cases the Board tries to persuade the persons concerned to mend their ways, and then it prosecutes. In 1958, it prosecuted in 78 cases. That is worth noting as evidence of the very small number involved and of the fact that the Board does not tolerate people who refuse to maintain their dependants and takes positive action against them.
I do not want to cross swords with the hon. and gallant Member concerning Commonwealth immigrants, except to say that most of us would resent any suggestion that anyone coming from the Commonwealth to this country should be treated any differently from citizens of this country, because they also are citizens of this country and come here to enjoy both the rights and duties thereby involved.
There is not a considerable number of immigrants in my constituency, and I can sympathise with the problems in areas where there are such numbers. Nevertheless, I feel that there is a deep principle at stake and that tests should not be applied to these people which are different from those applied to other citizens in the country. We should reassert that principle.
There has emerged in the debate a fundamental difference in approach between the two sides of the House as to the part which National Assistance should play in the general scheme of the social services. There is no controversy in the narrow sense that anyone wants to reject the regulations or oppose the Second Reading of the Bill which is to follow. But before I address myself to that point, I should like to comment on one or two things about which there is less controversy, beginning with the question of the discretionary allowances to which the Minister referred.
We were glad to note that these allowances are being paid now in such a large number of cases, and that about 47 per cent. of the total grants are being supplemented in this way and 63 per cent. in the case of retired pensioners who are receiving National Assistance. The right hon. Gentleman said very fairly that, in the nature of things, because these are discretionary allowances and people's needs vary so much, they cannot be dealt with in regulations. Therefore, the way in which they are implemented will vary to some extent with the approach of the individual officer. That is unavoidable, but to what extent is there a policy throughout the country by which what is being done in the best areas is followed in other areas? This cannot be done by way of formal regulations, but presumably there are instructions and there is co-ordination by which these standards are brought up to the level of the best.
I should also like to refer briefly to what the right hon. Gentleman said about the special rates of assistance paid to blind people and certain cases of tuberculous people. The right hon. Gentleman reminded us that the gap between their assistance and the standard rates has been widened by the regulations by the rise from £1 to 22s. 6d. a week. This is something which most hon. Members will welcome.
Having recognised that these people have special needs and to some extent special expenses which justify special treatment, it would be easy to go on—but I would resist the temptation—to quote other categories of long-term disabled and sick people for whom one could make an equally good case. It is time that we had a high-powered inquiry into the conditions of the chronic sick and disabled people. If we say, as we rightly do, that the standard rates of sickness benefit, supplemented by standard rates of National Assistance, are not good enough for the blind person or the tuberculous person who has to give up work, that would be equally true of other categories. The problem of the long-term aspects of our insurance scheme has not had enough attention in the past and ought to have more attention in the future. It is not only a question of the National Assistance aspect but also of the National Insurance side.
I want to contribute a few words on the problem of the reluctance to apply for National Assistance. This should not be under-estimated. Some hon Members have suggested that it is now confined mainly to elderly people, but that is not necessarily so. I will quote briefly from the book written by Mr. Peter Marris on "Widows and Their. Families", in which he said:
But they turned to assistance with reluctance. Even when the officials with whom they dealt were sympathetic, they felt they were looked upon as beggars. 'I hate the thought of the place' said one mother with five children still at school, who was up at half-past five in the morning just to get through the day's housework, 'I feel really degraded. They give you the impression that you're begging'.
I think that her impression of National Assistance officials is wrong, speaking generally. It may be true here and there, but generally their policy is not to indicate that they think the claimant is begging.
Nevertheless, there is this state of mind recorded by a social research worker as a result of his investigations. Perhaps the woman in question had an ingrained prejudice which the National Assistance Board official failed to remove despite his efforts. Nevertheless, the prejudice is there. I agree with the hon. and gallant Member that one step which ought to be taken is to merge the National Assistance Board into a wider Ministry of Social Welfare. I must point out to him, however, that this has been Labour Party policy for four years or so, and we are glad to welcome him as a supporter of it.
We must do everything we can to marry the concept of National Assistance and the National Insurance benefits. In so far as they can be administered in the same building, in so far as it is practicable for them to be administered by the same officials, the psychological step of applying for National Assistance is thereby made easier, and that is a strong argument for the suggestion. On the other hand, it may be said that we do not want to lose the valuable experience which has been gained by the National Assistance Board. This is a difficult administrative problem which will have to be considered carefully, but it could be merged into a wider Ministry, so consideration should be given to the suggestion.
I turn now to rather more controversial aspects of the debate. As I said at the beginning of my speech, there is a deep difference of principle between the two sides of the House. Referring briefly to the controversial point about the timing of the Bill and the Regulations, I would point out that we had a debate in the House in November, 1957, about the new rates of assistance which came into effect in January, 1958. During the course of that debate hon. Members on this side proposed nearly everything that is in the Bill and in the Regulations before us. We proposed rates of assistance equivalent to these. We certainly proposed that the disregards should be raised, something which is many years overdue.
What has changed in that period of eighteen months? We have been reminded that there has not been much change in the cost of living. The Government even take credit for that, although it is due to world factors for which they deserve no credit. So there has been no substantial rise in the cost of living. The right hon. Gentleman used the phrase that the poorest in the land should have a bigger share of our national wealth. Our national wealth has not increased in that eighteen months to any substantial extent; indeed, production has stagnated owing to the policy of right hon. Gentlemen opposite. The only thing that has changed in the eighteen months is that the General Election is eighteen months closer, and there was no case made against our proposals eighteen months ago that could not be made today. This is part of a cynical approach by the Government whereby the more unpleasant aspects of their programme—the Rent Act and so on—are introduced in the middle of the Parliament and, towards its end, they bring forward these tit-bits of legislation as window dressing for the General Election.
We have to look at this problem in the context of the general approach of hon. Gentlemen opposite to the Welfare State and to the social benefits. The speech made by the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) indicated the way in which the minds of members of the Conservative Party are moving on this matter. From 1951 until recently they did not know what to do about the social services. The Labour Government had brought them into being and the Conservatives did not like them much but dared not interfere with them too much for electoral reasons, though they pulled them about here and there and spoiled various aspects of them.
Now, however, a definite philosophy is emerging. To some extent it has been born in the Bow Group. This is depressing, because I understood that this group represented the younger and more intelligent members of the Conservative Party. This conception, put at its best, is said to be that one concentrates aid in the direction of those who need it most in other words, one retreats from the idea that the Welfare State is something for everybody and replaces that by the idea that the Welfare State is only for the poor. In other words, whoever applies for the benefits is labelled as someone poor who has not been able to provide for himself. One wonders how far this might be taken. It might be taken finally to include education—and hospital services.
That is a different argument. The hon. Member was maintaining that we were depriving the bulk in order to concentrate on the few. In fact, we are helping the bulk and concentrating as well on the few who are the poorest.
There were many plans laid in the legislation of the immediate post-war period which have taken time to mature. For example, the Education Act is still taking time to mature in order to achieve lower classes, better school buildings, and so on. Of course, the costs go up over a period.
I spoke of the new emerging theory which found expression in relation to the pensions problem in the National Insurance Bill, which involved a rejection of the idea of national superannuation, and it has found expression here today, particularly in the speech of the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West. The hon. Member made a case for concentrating aid on the poorest people. We on this side of the House must emphatically reject that, because to us the Welfare State is not something for the poor but something for everyone. We do not take the pessimistic view that we cannot afford to expand pensions and social services generously. We believe that with a Labour Government and a Labour policy we shall have an expansion of our national economy and income which will enable us to set our sights higher; in fact, expansion of the social services and of the economy will go side by side.
This is an argument which we should apply to the short-term problem as well as to the long-term problem, namely, the question whether at this moment the House should be doing merely what is in the Bill—that is, to increase the rate of National Assistance—or whether this should be accompanied by a rise in basic rates. Hon. Gentlemen opposite seem to me to be speaking as though there are only two categories of pensioners: those who are poor enough to be on National Assistance and those who are well-to-do. In fact, the majority come in between.
Field Marshal Montgomery has been introduced into the argument several times. It is unfortunate that such a gallant and distinguished soldier should be hauled out on parade in such a bad cause so often. The question is asked, why should we give him an extra pension? One answer is that anyone well-to-do who is paid extra pension will pay most of it back in tax. The more serious point is this. There are very large numbers—millions, one might say—of pensioners who are existing on modest means but are not poor enough to qualify for National Assistance or to qualify under the revised regulations, people with a small but dwindling pile of savings or people with a small pension from their work. We talk about half the men at work now having pension schemes, but we should remember that some are very modest schemes. There are many pensioners in the position which I have described who have a very real need for better pensions in order to lessen the gap between them and the working population. Also, as we have been reminded, there are many who qualify for National Assistance but will not apply. All those people are left out by this concept of the Government. They would be brought in if we did what the Labour Party has been demanding.
I submit that a £3 per week basic pension guaranteed against inflation and supported by higher National Assistance rates is the very least for which the House ought to be legislating at present.
The Government and hon. Members opposite ought to tell us honestly where they stand in relation to Lord Beveridge's dictum that the National Insurance scheme ought to provide adequately for those events in life which lead to a cessation of earning, events which one can foresee such as old age, widowhood, sickness and unemployment, and that National Assistance should be the last line of defence in the unforeseen cases.
The Labour Party has always stood for that principle. The view of the Government seems to be that that principle cannot be carried out in the foreseeable future. We say them is nothing wrong with the principle, but the means proposed by Lord Beveridge were not adequate to fulfil it and, therefore, we must have a new system of pensions, and that system should be the one which the Labour Party put before the country two years ago and has been advocating ever since. We ought to be told by the Government whether they still accept that principle or whether they recognise that in future National Assistance will be needed permanently to supplement basic National Insurance benefits for all who have not some private means of supplementing them.
I conclude on the note that there is still in the country at the moment a very great deal of poverty. The slogan "You have never had it so good" applies to some people but not all. At the moment, the National Assistance Board is providing for about 2½ million people, and there are very large numbers of people besides that who are not very far above the National Assistance scales. The basic causes of that poverty are the same as always—old age, widowhood, sickness and unemployment.
The Opposition say—it is a concept from which the Government have retreated—that what we must try to do is to tackle the causes of poverty, not merely alleviate it a little by a few shillings extra on the National Assistance rates. We should do that by all means as well, but the main direction of social policy should be to remove the causes of poverty. That is something about which the Government have put forward no constructive plan, and we shall have to wait until the Labour Party wins the next General Election.
The hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) has made a most interesting speech in which he has raised a great many very fundamental issues of social policy to which I shall try to refer while keeping within the rules of order.
I am sure the hon. Member was right when he said that there is a great deal of poverty, either openly seen or to some extent submerged, in the country. It is those cases which are referred to in the Report of the National Assistance Board and in the Regulations which we are trying to help.
The hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members opposite have said that they approve of the Regulations which we are discussing but are in doubt as to the real purpose that we have in mind for the rôle of the National Assistance Board and, in particular, its rôle in relation to the National Insurance scheme. Alongside the general agreement with what is being proposed, three criticisms have been made. First, there has been the suggestion that what has been proposed is not enough in terms of shillings, that it is a case of a few shillings only in an attempt to deal with a much bigger problem. Secondly, there has been the suggestion that it would be much better if what is proposed were done through the National Insurance scheme rather than by way of National Assistance. Thirdly, we have had the suggestion that we ought to be visualising the whole National Assistance scheme withering away in the years ahead rather than priding ourselves on the fact that over the next year or two, as the result of what we are doing in the Regulations, an additional number of people will come within the framework of National Assistance.
On the first point of criticism, I would say that we have to relate the Assistance scales to minimum wage scales. It is a very difficult sum to get exactly right. The point was made in The Times—I am not certain that I attach very much importance to it—that in some cases people on assistance could if they have children for whom they are drawing an allowance be getting slightly more than some of the minimum wage rates. I am not terribly concerned by those very rare cases. I believe they would be so rare in any one locality as not to be likely to affect the decisions of a single person. Therefore, I am not concerned about that, although we have to bear in mind the relationship between Assistance rates and minimum wage rates.
On the second point, I feel that the hon. Member swept aside the cost argument far too cavalierly. We have in the Regulations before us proposals to help 1,600,000 people who will receive National Assistance weekly, and this is likely to cost the country some £32 million. If we were to do this through the National Insurance scheme it would cost four or five times that amount, mainly for the reason that we should be helping not only those who need help most, but everyone else. In saying that, I am not decrying the principle that everyone has a stake in a Welfare State, but I am standing up for the principle that at any one time a Government has to look very hard at its order of priorities.
I should say that in looking at those who are on National Assistance now we are looking at those who are almost by definition most in need of assistance, and I would justify the expenditure of public money on them. Glancing round at all the other possible fields of social service expenditure, whether it be further education, refugees, capital equipment for hospitals or a host of other things, one would have to search one's conscience very hard before one put those whose need was not proved ahead of some of these other things.
While the hon. Gentleman is referring to other possible needs, will he recognise that we have had a Budget in which there were tax concessions to the extent of £366 million and that we should consider this matter against the background of Surtax concessions and relief in respect of the tax on beer and so on? I agree with him in what he says about the Government's priorities. We say that the priorities are wrong in a year such as this, taking the Budget into account along with all the other factors.
I do take full account of that background. What the hon. Gentleman asked in his speech was what had happened over the last eighteen months to make this change come about, since some of the suggestions for an improvement in National Assistance had come earlier from hon. Members opposite. The answer is that the earning prospects for the nation, the prospects for the nation's economy, have sufficiently improved for us to be able to take on more expenditure for social welfare.
The hon. Member said that it was the attitude of the Labour Party to declare what was the social scheme which was wanted, in National Assistance and in other respects, and that hon. Members opposite intended to set their caps at that and somehow to get the cash for it. However sincere their sympathies and hopes on that score may be, it is courting disaster for a nation or individual to think that improved social payments can be afforded before the cash with which to make those payments has been earned.
However much one may want these things, one has to think about one's priorities. I argue that the Budget contributed to the earning prospects of the nation and, therefore, to the prospect of better social payments. The Chancellor specifically made it clear in his Budget speech that the concession in the tax on beer was designed to boost the revenue which he feared would otherwise fall.
I want now to deal with one or two points of detail, the first concerning the scale rates. I know that other people have put forward their own views, but it seems to me that the biggest problem concerns the 660,000 people who live alone and who are in receipt of National Assistance. In spite of the very good argument about rates for children, I believe that it is among those 660,000 people that we will probably find the greatest hardship in the country.
I do not know what the right balance between married couples and single people is. It is very difficult to argue exactly how the rates should be split between the two, or how much cheaper it is for two people to live together than to live separately. It may be that I am not aware of work being done in this respect, but it seems to me that there is a case for a good deal of research to find what that balance is.
I wonder whether some fairly quick indication does not lie in the extent to which discretionary grants are made by the Assistance Board to single people. If one found that a very large proportion of discretionary payments were made to single people, that would be an indication that the rates for single people were those which required a little more boosting.
I am sure that the new method of calculating rent will be an improvement, mainly because it is very much easier for Assistance Board officers to explain and for the people concerned to understand. If there are three people in a household, one of them on National Assistance and the other two working, it is much easier to explain the rent in terms of a one-third share rather than the computative rate less 7s. for each person, or whatever the complicated calculation is.
I am sure that the discretionary allowances are of great importance, and possibly the most important thing which the Assistance Board does in emphasising its essentially welfare character. The more that one can do to emphasise that the Assistance Board is as much a part of our welfare services and social work as the other services, the better. Discretionary allowances give the Board's officers an opportunity of playing that rôle with a great deal of individual discretion—as the phrase implies—and I am sure that that is important.
It is very important that we should publicise the disregards. Where one has found submerged hardship, more often than not it has been in cases where someone has not gone to the Assistance Board, in the belief, from old memories, possibly from lack of knowledge, possibly from pride, that everything they possess, even their home if they are home owners, their furniture and their small savings, will be taken into account and will be at risk or at risk of declaration, which is almost as important.
The disregards must be publicised as clearly as possible. Is there not a case for having small posters or handbills in post offices to show who is entitled to National Assistance so that everyone can see and so that those who are interested are not pinpointed? As many others of us have said, I do not think that there is a case for changing the name of the Board. To change the name while leaving the powers is to conduct a deception which I could not support.
Publicity should be aimed as much at the general public as at those who are in receipt of National Assistance, or likely to be in receipt of it. One of the barriers against taking assistance is that, through the ignorance of neighbours as to the rôle of the National Assistance and what it is intended to be, there is much ignorant comment about National Assistance. We should be making it much easier for people in need to make full use of National Assistance, and the target of any publicity should be the general public as well as those in or likely to be in need.
Every hon. Member who has spoken has recognised the very valuable rôle which the National Assistance Board is playing. Where doubts have appeared they have been cast on the rôle of National Assistance in the economy as a whole. I have no shame in saying that National Assistance has a very important rôle now and for a long time to come in our social scheme. We will not be able to cover all the risks of life by insurance overnight, as the hon. Member for East Ham, North almost suggested. It is far better that we should move—
What I want to hear from the hon. Member and from other hon. Members opposite who say that National Assistance has an important rôle today is an answer to the question whether it should be a permanent supplement to National Insurance benefits for everyone who does not have private means or, as Lord Beveridge originally conceived it to be, a last line of defence for the exceptional case.
It has always been the view that National Assistance was the last line of defence. For the economic reasons that I have been given and because of the many other claims for social welfare that we will get within the foreseeable future, I do not think that the National Insurance payments will cover all risks. It could not be brought to that level without imposing a strain both on the employers' and employees' contribution, and on the Exchequer. It would be so damaging to the economy that one would find the standard of living declining rather than rising. A rising standard of living for everyone is what we are trying to achieve by this and other Measures.
Despite the protestations of the hon. Member for Tonbridge (Mr. Hornby), what he said admirably bore out what my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) said. There is emerging from the opposite side of the House what hon. Members opposite might call a philosophy. We might find another word for it, but there is emerging an attitude of mind towards the handling of the problem of the Welfare State and the problem of the aged.
When forced to deal with the point, the hon. Gentleman said that he regarded National Assistance as the last line. In looking at the Measure before us, particularly when it follows a Bill dealing with National Insurance, we see this attitude of mind emerging. Hon. Member after hon. Member on the other side of the House who took part in the discussion, and particularly the hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden), was very frank about this. I am sure that if the hon. Member were here now he would not be so chary of admitting the substance of the point presented by my hon. Friend the Member for East Ham, North, namely, that this attitude of mind is likely to become more and more established if the Conservative Government continue in office.
The position is clearly put in the Report of the Phillips Committee. It is unfortunate that we did not have an Opportunity to discuss the Report. Paragraph 212 states:
A contributory scheme cannot, in our view, be expected to provide a rate of benefit which would enable everybody, whatever their circumstances, to live without other resources either of their own providing or by way of National Assistance.
The Phillips Committee was set up to examine the question of the aged and there emerges this attitude that what was considered to be the basis of the Beveridge proposition could not be sustained.
The Beveridge proposition was that every man should have a pension in order that he
… can claim as of right when he is past work an income adequate to maintain him.
This means providing, as an essential part of the plan, a pension on retirement from work which is enough for subsistence even though the pensioner has no other resources.
There is the contrast between Phillips and Beveridge. I submit that hon. Gentlemen opposite should have been honest and challenged this because it is clear from the general tenor of what they have to say that, in this very important aspect, Beveridge has been departed from and Phillips has been accepted. We have here the working towards a solution of the problem of the aged.
I appreciate that Beveridge thought in terms of years, but he was thinking of the difficulties that would face the country in the years immediately following the war. He was making preparation for those years. I understand that Beveridge entered into a certain agreement with Lord Keynes about the methods to be adopted. For the period of twenty years Beveridge envisaged the supplementation of a pension which he would have said would have been insufficient without the addition of National Assistance. He would have considered it necessary to pay a full subsistence pension. He clearly envisaged the disappearance of National Assistance on a large scale. He did not think of it disappearing entirely, because there would be circumstances under which it would be necessary for some people. It was not considered by Beveridge to be the permanent way of providing for a large part of a person's income.
What emerges from the Bill and the Regulations that we are now discussing is that the present pension is not sufficient for subsistence. That is clearly the admission. The National Assistance scale is 85s. for a couple, which is about the pension rate, and in addition there is a supplement to the rental, and other supplements will be paid. We know how difficult it is to arrive at a figure on which we agree as subsistence. Nevertheless, we have a National Assistance scale which is a substantial addition to the National Insurance scale. This shows that it is recognised that National Insurance is not sufficient for subsistence and that it must be supplemented.
It follows that unless the Government show that they are taking steps which would ensure that people would have something in addition to National Insurance, they must expect us to take it that they regard National Assistance as a permanent long-term, large-scale part of our social security system.
It is significant that so much has been said about making National Assistance acceptable. It has been suggested that we should change the name, disguise the book that people receive, allow people to have access to some different body of people and not have to go into a certain building which is recognised as a National Assistance building, or that we should allow them to make applications for National Assistance on the basis of some little code mark that indicates that they do not want the National Assistance officer to call at their home. All those suggestions have been made to overcome or make acceptable a practice which is accepted on both sides of the House but which is not acceptable to large numbers of our people.
The suggestion is sometimes made, and it has been made this afternoon, that, by and large, this applies only to elderly people with memories of U.A.B. and public relief. Let me quote one case. An elderly woman came to me. I advised her to apply for National Assistance, which she did. She was awarded 25s. a week, but she refused to accept it because her son who was unemployed at that time would not have his mother receiving National Assistance. He was a young man.
It is interesting to realise how few people who are unemployed apply for National Assistance. I am sure that the great bulk could qualify for it. Although, for most of last year, we had over 500,000 people unemployed, only 66,000 were in receipt of National Assistance. I realise that in many cases unemployment is a short-term matter, but in some parts of the country it is not. In Scotland we have had 99,000 people unemployed, and for many of them it has not been a question of short-term unemployment, but the proportion who apply for National Assistance has been very low. Even if we consider those unemployed people who are not in receipt of unemployment benefit but who are signing on because they are looking for a job, we find that little more than 20 per cent. of the total number of unemployed apply for National Assistance. This indicates that even among the younger members of our society there is a strong dislike of submitting to a means test.
The hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Tiley) talked lightly about this. He said that everybody was in receipt of national assistance, and that his wife, who drew family allowances, was in receipt of national assistance. Family allowances are a different matter. Everybody with two children can draw the family allowance, and there is no means test attached to it.
The hon. Member does me less than justice in suggesting that I spoke lightly on this matter. I did not. But he is wrong about the means test. Children's allowances are subject to a means test. Mine are. The cruel thing is that after they are awarded the Chancellor of the Exchequer, by the means test involved in our Income Tax return, claws back the amount he needs.
I withdraw what I said about the hon. Member speaking lightly upon the matter, but it is clear that he was trying to make National Assistance acceptable. I suggest that hon. Members opposite are all on the same plane. There is a great difference between National Assistance and family allowances, which every woman with two children can draw and which involves no means test. We had better not talk about taxation. We can show that enormous benefits can be derived from taxation reliefs.
I am surprised that no mention has been made this afternoon of the fact that an increasing number of our people are in receipt of some form of private superannuation. Many schemes will provide only poor benefits, but some will provide substantial benefits. In any case, an increasing number of people will have a supplementation of the National Insurance basic rate through some form of private superannuation. The hon. Member knows working people sufficiently well to appreciate that if Mr. A. is living on his National Insurance plus his private superannuation, Mr. B, living next door, who is making do with his National Insurance plus National Assistance, will feel that a certain stigma attaches to him.
When I was a youngster I can remember some of the poorest of my mates at school obtaining police "bits" or boots, stamped with five small round holes so that they could not be pawned. Even youngsters living in poverty-stricken areas sneered at those who wore police boots, and if a situation arose in which a large number of our workpeople were living on National Insurance plus private superannuation while many others were living on National Insurance plus National Assistance, the stigma would be felt. We must get rid of it.
Despite all the whitewashing and the soft words which have been used it would be very difficult to make National Assistance acceptable to the bulk of our wage earners. It is not even equitable. If it were, we might be able to make out a good case for going on with the effort to make it acceptable, but if we examine the reasons why some people who retire will be able to live very well while others will have to ask for National Assistance we realise that it is not equitable. If we could say, "Those who will be able to live well in retirement will be able to do so because of the superior merit that they have shown during their working lives, or because of the greater worth of their services to society," it would be a different matter. This may apply in some cases, but not in the majority. We know that the reward for services rendered is not an accurate measure of the worth of those services to society or the effort required to render them.
Many fortuitous circumstances enter into the matter, which determine whether a man is a member of an excellent private superannuation scheme—a member of one of these "top hat" schemes—who will get a pension of two-thirds of his wage or more when he retires, or is a member of a scheme which provides him with only a few shillings, or nothing at all. It cannot be argued that equity enters into the matter.
Working-class people are thrifty, and they endeavour to save. I can recall a piece of advice that was given to almost every youngster in my circumstances. It vas, "A shilling of your own is your best friend." That indicates the attitude of mind of working people. It is an attitude of mind which causes one to begin to think of putting away a shilling or sixpence in the bank at a very early age, not in order to earn interest but in order to provide for a rainy day. Very often it is a question of saving up to get buried, so that one is not buried as a pauper. In some cases such savings used to begin almost as soon as a person was born.
That is genuine working-class saving. We have heard of the clubs and provident societies, and of the efforts to save up to buy furniture. Many working-class women save up shilling by shilling each week. Many hon. Members will have taken part in the draws that occur, when the first name drawn has first choice. The first watch that I had, almost as a child, was bought on the basis of so much per week. The person whose ticket was drawn first had the first choice.
To hear the hon. Member for Leeds, North-East (Sir K. Joseph) talk in what seems to me to be disparaging terms about what working people can or cannot do grieves me to the bone. We know that some working people are stubborn, but their attitude of mind is a product of the circumstances that we have been struggling against. Hon. Members opposite tell us that things have become very much better than they were in the past. They have become very much better precisely because the power of the working class, organised through trade unions and political movements, has compelled things to become better. It is because of the growth of the power of the working-class that we are in our present circumstances, where working people have begun to get off their knees and insist upon their share of the wealth which they produce.
There still exists the attitude of mind that the nation cannot afford it. It has been said that we need to spend £32 million to deal with the very poorest, and that we can spend that and no more. We cannot raise the basic pension for all, but we can spend £32 million on National Assistance to help the poorest of the poor. It is the same charity-mongering attitude to which we have objected so much in the past. What the nation can afford is a political matter. This is a wealthy nation, and it could be much wealthier than it is. There are considerable resources in this nation which are not being used. It could expand its capacity to produce wealth if, at the same time, it could expand the capacity to consume the wealth that it produced. That is the problem arising in the Western world, the so-called free world—the problem that our capacity to produce wealth has outstripped our capacity to sell what we produce.
We want to see standards rise. It seems to me that, looking into the not too distant future to try to discern the attitude that ought to be taken in this matter, it is quite clear what the party opposite is trying to do. It wants to see the growth of private occupational pension schemes. It wants to see the growth of a large number of people having their income supplemented by National Assistance. We object to that. We are not objecting to more being paid by National Assistance, but we object to it being a permanency. We are thinking in terms of a standard of life worthy of the people of this country and to which they have contributed through their work.
The hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) repeatedly makes an assessment of what has been done in terms of £ s. d. He tells us that the contributions paid amount only to one-tenth of what is drawn in terms of £ s. d. The people have built up this country with brains, sweat and blood. That is the payment that they have made. The older generation gives birth to a younger generation. The older generation carries the younger generation on its shoulders and gives it the skills which provide it with the means of paying. We expect the younger generation to carry the older generation when the older generation is no longer fit to carry on the job. That is the service which has been rendered and this measuring in terms of £ s. d. is another example of the attitude of hon. Members opposite. There are many things which we cannot measure in terms of £ s. d.
Let us look at the problem of the growing number of elderly people. I think that this problem has been greatly exaggerated. The Phillips Committee reduced the number estimated by the Beveridge Committee. I think that if we look at it more closely we could reduce it further. We might find many other forms of social savings in which we could engage. There are not nearly so many people without work today as there used to be. I am thinking of the days in the past when flunkeys went round by the score, serving no useful purpose except to minister to the needs of some laird. My own solution to this problem is to think in terms of a basic pension. We admit that the present basic pension is not sufficient. I would have the basic pension raised to £3. Even so, I would not consider that sufficient and I would still make it possible for people to supplement it by National Assistance.
In addition to the basic pension, we should work quickly for the building-up of a genuine State superannuation scheme—not the bogus version presented to us by the Government—so that we could rapidly build up to such a stage that the people of this country would have their basic pension plus a worthwhile State superannuation benefit or else a private superannuation benefit so that they need not ask for National Assistance. We have the means, and on this basis I think that we could easily solve the problem of old age.
It is precisely because the hon. Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson) and his hon. Friends appear to follow the advice which the hon. Gentleman gave—that what a country can afford is a political matter—that while his party were in power we had a financial crisis every other year and a devaluation of the £. To those who will come to judge these matters it is not at all a convincing argument that the amount spent in this or in other aspects of the Welfare State should be a matter of politics and not of economics. I shall challenge a number of other things said by the hon. Member for Motherwell, and by other hon. Members opposite, but first I wish to try to get into perspective this link which has been quoted between Beveridge and Phillips.
It was asserted that there had been some departure from the original Beveridge thinking, which was regretted. The picture was drawn of the Beveridge idea of a subsistence pension payable to the contributor who, be it noted, had earned his subsistence pension by his contributions. It was suggested that in some way or other, hon. Members on this side of the House had departed from this conception and had taken over another one which, for the sake of simplicity, was called Phillips.
What the hon. Member for Motherwell completely ignored is the fact that since the war there has been no attempt to implement by legislation the fundamental philosophy of Beveridge in the sphere of pensions. There has been no attempt to build a subsistence pension by contributions from the contributor, the employer and the State over the years. All the parties concerned decided many years ago to abandon that conception and to substitute for it a substantially improved pension, but not a subsistence pension, without waiting for the contributor to pay what Lord Beveridge then thought it was essential that he should pay in order to avoid a financial crisis. So do not let us call in aid Lord Beveridge. His plans were abandoned long since, and the fundamental philosophy which he recommended at the time was not accepted by hon. Members on this side or the opposite side of the House. It is quite unreasonable to claim part of the thinking of Lord Beveridge when all the time we know that the rest of it was rejected.
I wish to deal with a comparatively small point, namely, the question whether there should be some merging of the National Assistance Board with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. I think that it was the hon. Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice) who alluded to the point, and it was referred to indirectly by other hon. Members. One could sympathise with the motive behind the idea of getting that more acceptable to people—I shall refer later in my speech to the gravamen of the charge made a few minutes ago—if it were part and parcel of the pension technique which is prevalent. There is, however, also value in the independence which Parliament has hitherto ensured for the National Assistance Board But, having said that, I must also say that I think that one change has come about in the independent idea of the National Assistance Board by reason of the fact that, for the first time, the National Assistance rates in terms of the cost of living are no criteria of the rates before us at present.
There is a new conception, namely, a willingness to share the increased prosperity in the country, particularly with those on National Assistance. No doubt that idea was initiated by the Government, and the very fact that there is emerging a different relationship between the Government and the Board from the suggestion that this new element should be a factor to be taken into account does change somewhat the independent situation hitherto assigned to the Board. I think that makes it easier to go along with the idea of perhaps some day merging it with the ordinary pensions Ministry.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) said that by comparison with other countries we tended to fall behind in our welfare services. That was one way of saying that we ought to be doing more than is being done, but the suggested test by which we should judge whether we are falling behind seemed to be the proportion of people's income which is taken from them compulsorily and deployed in one way or another through the Welfare State. I do not regard that as a reasonable criterion.
Did the hon. Member notice an Answer which the Chancellor of the Exchequer gave the other day in the House, to the effect that the burden of taxation on individuals in this country is about £1,000 million a year less this year than a few years ago? In view of that Answer, does he still persist in his view about the statement made by my hon. Friend?
Certainly. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman was in the Chamber at the time when his hon. Friend was speaking, but the test which we were asked to make was to consider the percentage of people's incomes which was taken from them compulsorily by contributions to pensions, and in taxation and so on. I think that the hon. Member had chiefly in mind compulsory contributions to the Welfare State and not direct taxation. Judged on that test, I say that there is a point beyond which we on this side of the House would not regard it as reasonable to go. If other countries, or even if the party opposite, choose to go further, that is up to them; but we on this side of the House believe there is a point beyond which it is unreasonable and unwise to go, because one would encounter other complications which I do not wish to develop at length now.
The other test of whether we are going far enough which was advanced in this debate was to consider the number of people receiving National Assistance. It has been asserted several times by hon. Members opposite that this number is too high and that if only the National Insurance pension were bigger, the numbers receiving National Assistance would go down. I think we overlook one point which I have not heard made in this debate. It is that surely there is a substantial number of people drawing National Assistance who, if the present scheme, introduced in 1948, had been running for the last fifty years or more, would not be drawing National Assistance because they would have become entitled to certain benefits which now they are denied only because they had reached a certain age when the scheme started. I do not know the number of such people, but I do not doubt that the number of people receiving National Assistance is swollen by the inclusion of such people as those who fall into the category which I have mentioned.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) regarded it as a terrible thing that two-thirds of those receiving National Assistance are enjoying National Insurance benefits as well in one form or another. I would put the position differently, and say that of those drawing National Assistance it would seem that one-third have no help from the contributions paid into the National Insurance Scheme. Therefore they are dependent solely upon it.
It is important to find out what proportion of those who are deriving benefit by way of pensions, sickness or unemployment payment from the National Insurance scheme is represented by the two-thirds who are drawing both National Insurance benefits and National Assistance. That is the figure which we must see does not get too high when we are judging whether we have done the right thing. To me, it is a question of balance. Various question have been asked from the Opposition side about our attitude towards National Assistance. I believe that to place the benefits of a compulsory insurance scheme at subsistence level would entail a contribution higher than people are willing to pay or than it is reasonable to expect them to pay.
If we start on the assumption that we will not get subsistence benefits, for the reason I have given, we must strike a point somewhat below that where we wish to fix the level of benefits and, of course, the level of contributions relating to them. The question must be asked from time to time whether we should levy rather more contributions for rather better benefits and reduce the numbers on National Assistance, or the reverse. We shall always have a fair number of people on National Assistance, because to get the numbers substantially less than at the present time would entail contributions from taxpayer, contributor personally, and employer higher than can be paid without serious ill effects following in their wake.
The hon. Gentleman was saying that it is a matter of judgment whether one should have more or less people on National Assistance, and that one might find that one had to have more. Is he saying now that it is because of this that we have the sudden Government decision to increase the number of people on National Assistance? Is it because the Government cannot afford to increase the basic pension? During the Committee stage of the National Insurance Bill the Minister repeatedly told us that he was able to reduce the number of people on National Assistance. Can the hon. Gentleman tell me what factor influences the Minister's judgment to reverse his policy of reducing the number on National Assistance and deliberately to increase the number?
The hon. Gentleman has been long enough in this House to know not to ask one hon. Member to suggest the motives lying behind the statements or the policies of another hon. Member. I am certainly not going to take it upon myself to say what I think is the motive of any particular action of the Minister. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary, who is on the Government Front Bench, is more than capable of dealing with that point.
One other matter ought to be said, and I hope hon. Members opposite will not get cross about it. We have been told frequently that many people who are entitled to National Assistance do not go to get it. By and large, those who have a claim to it and need the help ought to go and get it. The more that hon. Gentlemen opposite say that the numbers on National Assistance ought to be reduced to cut down this rather strange band of people who have this special kind of help which is so much like charity, the more difficult it will be to persuade people that they ought to go and get what is their right. Hon. Gentlemen opposite are undoing some of their well-wishing sentiment. By disparaging the whole system and saying that there are far too many people on National Assistance they are undoing the good they claim to be doing when encouraging people to get National Assistance. I think it a pity that that should be so.
I am very glad that it has been possible to give an extra share of the nation's resources to this particular section of the community. It is not really a question of concentrating on those who need it most, a phrase which has been somewhat misleading because it implies that we abandon all else in order solely to concentrate in one area. That has never been the suggestion, but it is that those who really need help should have the first claim on what help there is and their needs should be satisfied first. As we have established a slightly better relationship between those on National Assistance and ordinary folk not on National Assistance by saying that we shall give them a better share in the nation's prosperity, I hope that relationship will be maintained whether the nation's prosperity remains so great or otherwise. In other words, they have gone up a step by this process and I hope that relationship will remain.
Another point which does not concern the money, but concerns very much the position of old folks on National Assistance, notably those we are discussing today, is the attempts which are made, somewhat spasmodically, to find work for these people in their homes. I do not know whether the Minister saw a letter in The Times from Mrs. Henriques on 17th June. It drew attention to the work which voluntary bodies are doing in this field and made the suggestion that a great deal of help and encouragement could be given if this were more widely known, and if suitable industries played their part in developing this aspect of old folks' life. My only reason for mentioning this matter now is to ask the Minister to see if there is a way by which his officials—locally and centrally—can give help and encouragement to those deliberately fostering these arrangements in commerce and industry. Perhaps they might be given the information which is available to encourage and help what I am sure is an extremely valuable addition, quite apart from the financial help given to old people.
I am very pleased to have the opportunity to intervene in this debate. We have had a good debate in which the Minister set a high standard. He was clear in his explanations of the new National Assistance Regulations. The example of the right hon. Gentleman has been followed by hon, Members who have spoken from both sides of the House. A good speech was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) and good speeches have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House.
I think we all agree that the National Assistance Board exists today because the benefit rates for retirement pensions, un- employment and sickness benefits are not sufficient to meet the needs of applicants and also because the Board caters for those who do not come within the National Insurance scheme. I have had cases concerning people who have emigrated from this country many years ago. They have gone to Canada or Australia and then come back at the age of 70. They are not in any of our insurance schemes and, therefore, the National Assistance Board has to deal with their needs.
I welcome these Regulations, and I am pleased that the rates of benefit have been raised because this will help the poorest section of the community. I should have welcomed also an increase in the basic rate of retirement pension and in unemployment and sickness benefit, and for a long time my hon. Friends and I, not only in the House but also in Standing Committee on the National Insurance Bill, pressed the Minister to help the retirement pensioners. The help has been given in the form of increased National Assistance. Although we should have preferred an increase in the basic pension, at least we can take some consolation from the fact that it will help those at the bottom of the ladder.
I was very glad that the Minister stated that persons in need are entitled to assistance from the Board. I am very pleased that that statement has been made and I hope that publicity will be given to it. In addition to those in need because of unemployment or sickness, there are over 1 million retirement pensioners receiving supplementary pensions. Some of them are old, 70, 80 or even 90 years of age, and they have bitter memories of the old poor law system. Like other hon. Members, I should like to pay a tribute to the work of the National Assistance Board. I feel that I can do so especially because I can remember the old poor law system. In my very young days I was a member of a board of guardians in one of the poorest parts of London. This was between 1925 and 1930. I well remember the poor law days. The old poor law was harsh and was a hang-over from the Victorian period. I can tell hon. Members plainly that by comparison with the old board of guardians, the National Assistance Board is a paradise. We can at least say, therefore, that we have made great progress since the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth century in the administration of help to those who need it.
In those days, a great deal of relief was given in food tickets, not in cash. Some shops had notices in the windows, "Relief tickets taken here", which implied that some shops would not even accept relief tickets. I remember the old Guardians building. It was a red brick house. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. Eden) has said that people do not like it to be known that they are on National Assistance. In those days, people did not like it to be known that they were "on red house". When a man was receiving poor law relief it was said, "He is on the red house". We can say definitely that the National Assistance Board today is much more in keeping with the twentieth century and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South said, more in keeping with the traditions of the British people. We can nay tribute to the National Assistance Board for its work.
There are two matters which I want to raise with the Minister. The first concerns the rent allowances. I know that the Minister has stated that the average rent paid was 18s. I should like to know whether more assistance is given to a person who has a very high rent. There may be cases in which a man reaches retirement age when he is living in an expensive flat or house, the rent of which may be £3 or even £4 10s. a week, and I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell me what is his position, for it is not always possible for the person concerned to find accommodation at a lower rent.
Another point about National Assistance to which I should like to refer and to which I was pleased the Minister gave publicity concerns lump sum payments. Those, including the old-age pensioners, on National Assistance live on a bare budget, on a razor edge. Even with these increases, they will still be living from hand to mouth. When these people want new blankets or sheets, they have not the necessary money saved up. A lot of them were working during the period of unemployment and depression before the war, when they received very low wage n and also have very small savings. If they want £5 for a pair of blankets or £3 for a pair of shoes, it is very difficult for them to find the money.
Recently, a man of 79 in my constituency came to me wearing slippers and a threadbare suit. On his behalf, I wrote at once to the National Assistance Board. The Board immediately gave him £12 5s. for clothes and shoes. That man did not seem to know that he could apply to the Board for assistance. I am pleased, therefore, that the Minister gave publicity to the payments which the Board can make. I do not know whether it will be possible to issue a booklet on this subject or whether area offices could be specially instructed that if they have a case of a man without proper shoes or clothes, sheets or blankets they can make him a grant so that he can buy the necessities which he needs.
The problem of ending poverty in old age is the challenge of this century. I think that we are making some strides in this connection. My hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) has devoted a great deal of time and ability to the question of a proper superannuation scheme. I want a retirement pension that will enable a person to have not only the material needs of life but also amenities for culture and pleasure. I do not think that this is a short-term matter. We should not disguise that fact. My hon. Friend knows that. We should aim at a retirement pension which does not have to be supplemented by National Assistance or supplementary allowances.
We on these benches say that the basic retirement pension rate should be raised straight away, but unless the increase is high enough, this will not completely solve the problem, and we shall need the National Assistance Board to make supplementary allowances.
I hope and trust that in the months ahead we shall continue to press the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance to increase the basic rate of the retirement pension.
While I agree with hon. Members on both sides who have welcomed the increases in the scales and in the disregards, the figures which are presented to Parliament by the National Assistance Board year after year cause me some anxiety. I wish to deal with one point only which emerges from those figures. I refer to the very large and increasing number of people for whom the scale rates are inadequate. Year after year, the number of persons who have to receive discretionary payments beyond the scale rates increases. That causes me some concern. Not only is the number of persons whose extreme poverty is such that they must have a discretionary payment beyond the scale rates increasing, but the percentage of the total number who need these discretionary extras is also increasing.
The figures presented to Parliament by the National Assistance Board in its yearly Reports fill me with alarm. Looking back to 1950, there were then 420,000 people for whom the basic scale rates were inadequate and who had to receive extra discretionary payments, whereas now, eight years or more later, the number is nearly doubled at 780,000.
In 1950, £6 million was spent upon discretionary payments, whereas today it is found necessary to spend £14½ million of public money on discretionary payments. The number of people found to be in extreme poverty is increasing over the years. I am alarmed that we have the state of affairs that more people each year are pushed into the category of being treated on a poor law basis. Their means and conditions have to be examined. Each case has to be taken individually by the National Assistance officers. These people are indeed upon the old poor law basis. They have no entitlement to an adequate maintenance. They are entitled to the National Assistance scale rates, but to relieve their extreme poverty they need something beyond that.
It could be argued, however, that the number goes up for one of two reasons: either because our attitude is better and we become more generous and humane, or for the opposite reason which my hon. Friend has just mentioned.
I agree that we are becoming humane. It may also be true that the National Assistance officers and welfare workers generally are finding out these cases of extreme poverty. Members of Parliament, too, pick up these cases of extreme poverty and bring them to the notice of the Assistance Board. The fact stands out, however—it is in the Reports—that there is today this very large number of three-quarters of a million people who have no entitlement to a sufficient rate and they have to be treated on a poor law basis.
The Government's policy will, I fear, tend in that direction. More and more people will be treated on a poor law basis and, therefore, a lesser proportion of our population will have adequate income as of right.
I agree that the Labour Party has killed the curse of the stigma. My right hon. Friend the Member for Llanelly (Mr. J. Griffiths) introduced in 1948 the National Assistance Bill, which laid the basis for the removal of the blighted stigma.
I agree that we are making progress and have removed that stigma. Nevertheless, I draw the attention of the hon. Member and of the House to the outstanding fact that the number of people in extreme poverty and for whom the National Assistance scales are inadequate increases year after year.
These people really are the submerged section of our population. They have received additional discretionary payments because they have not sufficient clothes in which to go about their business. They are without boots. Possibly a large proportion of these 750,000 people who receive discretionary extra allowances receive them because their nutritional standards are inadequate. They are underfed. Probably 400,000 of them receive these extra discretionary allowances because it is decided they require extra nutrition.
So I say to the Minister not to be too complacent. We have got these 750,000 people in extreme poverty and subject to the application of the poor law basis of being relieved on a discretionary basis. Our high ideals in 1948 of putting almost the whole population on the basis of entitlement when in need because of unemployment or sickness or old age are slowly being whittled away. We do know that the Government have deliberately taken the course of seeking to use National Assistance more and more and that they will not face the demand of our time that more and more people in old age and in need should be entitled to adequate subsistence.
I think it would be odious repetition if I were to go through all the detailed points which have been put to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, to which I know she is going to reply, and competently, as she always does.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) said something which I think everybody on this side of the House will echo. Nobody on this side will decry the work of the National Assistance Board. I think it is a very remarkable institution, as the Minister said. Nevertheless, there can really be much too much complacency in this business of deliberately increasing the number of people who have to go to the Board. I think we have to register this fact, and I would ask the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for precise answers to these questions. Is it or is it not the Government's decision to reverse their policy in this respect? Is it or is it not now the policy to be proud of the number of people going to the Assistance Board and to claim that this is the proper, modern way of treating the problem we are facing tonight?
Before I come to that main issue I want to deal with the problem of the disregards which was discussed so admirably by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd); the question of those people with capital which is not invested in war savings but in building societies, co-operative dividends, and the rest. We all know that we had this extraordinary rule about war savings. It was, I think, considered by the trade unions during the war that there would not be much saving unless it was disregarded, but the war is a long time ago, and, frankly, having talked this over with the trade unions, we cannot really feel that in the year 1959 any distinction should be drawn between one form of capital and another. One simply ought to say that there is a top limit of £375, whatever it may be, if any kind of capital is to be disregarded.
We should like to know from the Minister why this proposal cannot be accepted. Of course, we appreciate the small improvement here, but we should have liked to have seen a much more simple suggestion, because, frankly, nobody can really understand why one kind of capital is allowed only £100 and another £375.
I want to turn for most of what I have to say to this question of the rôle of National Assistance. I believe that the Government's case was put most candidly, if not most discreetly, by the hon. Member for Bradford. West (Mr. Tiley). As usual, he made a charming speech. He told us that we were all on national assistance. He told us that if we received children's allowances were were on national assistance, and that if our children went to school we were on national assistance. This is, of course, true on one condition: either he believes that a means test should be applied to our free education service, to our children's allowances and to the National Health Service—if he thinks that, he will be consistent in saying that our social services now are national assistance—or else he must believe that a means test should be eliminated from National Assistance.
But it is the height of disingenuousness, or else confusion, to muddle up social services accompanied by a means test with social services without a means test. There was a tendency in Tory speeches today to think that by improving, as we all want to improve, the methods of giving National Assistance and by removing as far as possible the stigma, we remove the basic fact, which is that National Assistance is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) said, the net into which the most unfortunate fall and that it is for that reason different from any other social service in that it must have a means test attached to it if it is going to do the basic job for which it was intended of rescuing the unfortunate.
What we find disconcerting is the complacency with which the Tories say that it should be given a second function totally different from that basic job and in addition to rescuing the unfortunate, that of supplying supplementary assistance to millions of people who by no bound of imagination can be described as having fallen through the floor of society. Of course we want to say that everybody entitled to National Assistance has it as of right, but those who are compelled to go for a right complain that they are getting National Assistance supplementation and not an increased basic pension. That is the point that we are making, and I want to deal not only with old-age pensioners but also with unemployment.
It is not denied that the recent unemployment was at least partly the direct result of Government policy. We were told that it was necessary. But if people on the other side of the House think it necessary to have a "slumplet" and to create a small amount of unemployment, of half a million, did not anybody think that, having done that, it was the Government's duty to examine the rate of unemployment benefit and to ask themselves what should be allotted to those unfortunate people who, for the sake of policy, have to be thrown out of their jobs?
It is worth remembering that the rate for a single man is 23 per cent., or a quarter of the average wage. To demand that people should accept a cut of three-quarters in their standard of living and should be told that they must accept it, unless they go to National Assistance and have a means test, seems to us a serious departure from the kind of progress begun in 1945 in the construction of the Welfare State.
We believe that if one is unemployed, having paid one's contribution regularly, one should receive one's benefit as of right, and that that benefit should be adequate to maintain one in the period of unemployment. The benefit provided of £2 10s. is a destitution benefit. How do I know? Because if a person goes to the National Assistance Board and he is a married person, he gets 5s. more than the rate he would receive as his right under the National Insurance Act.
I shall come later to the question of which side of the House likes disregarding actuarial calculations in the matter of National Insurance benefit. A Government Whip should appreciate that the new Government policy is a reversal of that which prevailed before.
Even ex-Government Whips should know their Government's policy.
Therefore, we are saying in the first place to the Minister that we would like an answer to the question, why, although the Joint Parliamentary Secretary only a few weeks ago was priding herself on reducing the number of people on National Assistance, in this debate pride is taken in the increased number of people who will be on National Assistance? For instance, during the lengthy Committee stage the hon. Lady said in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds):
I am very surprised that the hon. Gentleman said pursue this point when he and his right hon. and hon. Friends consistently, in season and out of season, tell us that what they want to do is to remove people from the level where they have to apply for National Assistance. I think that we should all subscribe to that."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 24th March, 1959; c. 670.]
That was the policy in the Committee stage of the National Insurance Bill. Both sides of the Committee agreed that our aim should be to raise the rates of benefit so high that the least number of people should have recourse to National Assistance. Yet in the interval between the Committee stage of that Bill and the announcement of the new National Assistance scales a complete revolution took place. So we now want
to know from the hon. Lady why it is that, whereas during the Committee stage of the Bill she said the aim was to reduce the numbers on National Assistance, we are now told that the aim is to cover as many people as possible by National Assistance if they are to get an increase in pension.
I will not deny for a moment that the problem is one for everybody here, not only for the Government. It has long been true that at the end of the war we did not start with a pension which could really be regarded as a subsistence pension. That I freely give to the other side of the House. It was difficult in 1946 to do so, and the result was that we did not get a pension high enough to be regarded as a subsistence pension. Since we have had the new Government, we have had a series of Acts which add up to a systematic repudiation even of the goal of a subsistence pension. This is the important thing to notice, that gradually they have been moving away even from pretending that they are trying to achieve a subsistence rate of benefit, whether for the unemployed, for the sick or for the aged.
We have seen Government policy develop in three stages. First there was the deliberate increase of the flat-rate contribution as against the share of taxation, in order to put the burden of paying predominantly on the wage earner. Then we had the Government's National Insurance Bill, which shifted the burden even further by introducing a system of wage-related contributions without any adequate wage-related pension and which, moreover, showed quite clearly that if a person is not in a good superannuation scheme the Government will not provide him, unless he goes to National Assistance, with anything above a destitution level. After all, National Assistance relieves destitution, it is there to keep people above a level which we regard as unworthy for citizens of this country.
I am delighted to find that the Government have somewhat raised their standard of destitution since a higher standard is to be required. National Assistance is for the purpose of preventing anyone from falling to a standard of living which we cannot tolerate in this country. So as a result of the latest National Insurance Bill there is now clearly laid down the decision of the Government that there shall be in future, as there are now, two groups of pensioners—the lucky minority on private superannuation schemes or private savings, who do not have to go for National Assistance, and everybody else being forced to supplement their pensions through National Assistance. We regard this as a real problem because, as a nation, we started in the pensions race deplorably late. As a nation we have never been willing to contribute enough, so our contribution has always been lower than that of nations where social welfare has been much more highly developed.
We are far too complacent in talking about the Welfare State in this country. In fact, many countries in the world, including in certain aspects the United States of America, are far beyond us in welfare services primarily because they are prepared to pay high rates of contribution and have higher Exchequer contributions. The fact is that the United States gives this job a higher priority and we fail to do so. Because we fail to do so, and because we had the added problem of inflation, we are always faced with this chronic dilemma. We want to get the basic rate of pension well above the National Assistance level, but the two are so miserably low that if we were to create a gap between the pension and National Assistance we should be doing injustice to those who are poor. Therefore, every time we raise the pension we have to raise National Assistance as well. That is why when we moved our Motion of censure we made it clear that we realised that if we added 10s. to the basic pension we could not conceivably deny a full 10s. for those who have to go to National Assistance because the general standard of those getting it is so scandalously low.
What disturbs the Opposition is the Government's bland satisfaction that basically the general standard of living of an unemployed man, somebody on sickness benefit or an old person on National Assistance under the new scales is adequate and that the millions of old-age pensioners who are not eligible for, National Assistance but are only slightly better off are considered to be enjoying a satisfactory standard of living. From our point of view, this is a totally unsatisfactory attitude to the problem.
The problem of the gap has been made a great deal worse in a rapidly expanding economy. I think it was the right hon, Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), the present Home Secretary, who told us some time ago in one of his previous incarnations that it would be possible to double the national income in twenty-five years. He was right; it is possible to do so if one plans one's direction properly and maintains a properly employed economy. It certainly is possible in twenty-five years to double the standard of living of the country. Even the Government have assumed in their National Insurance Bill a modest 2 per cent. increase annually in the national income.
We have taken the trouble—I put this to the House because it illustrates the problem—to work out what the average wage would be if we had the 2 per cent. increase in national income reflected in wages. Take a man aged 20 earning £9 a week when the Government's new pension scheme starts. He will be earning £21 a week when he retires on the basis of this 2 per cent. per annum increase and the Government promise him a pension of £2 10s. Take a man aged 30 and earning £12 a week. He will be earning £23 a week when he retires, and the Government will give him a pension of £3 5s.
This indicates the ludicrous character of the Government's provision for old age, because it does not take account of the steadily rising standard of living, the steady swell in the size of the national economy. The Government's calculations are static with reference to this. When we put this to the Minister, all he says—this is the reply to the hon. Member for Tavistock (Sir H. Studholme)—is "Oh, do not worry about the actuarial calculations. When we actually get to the time the pension will be totally different." What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by that? He means that he is not prepared to agree that we have to build into our pension scheme an automatic elevator which will keep the, level of the pension rising constantly with rising national standards and rising national income. I am not talking about an inflation guarantee to pensioners after they have retired. I am saying that during one's working life, if pensions are to mean anything in the end, there must be a built-in system to ensure that the value of the pension relates to wages at the end of one's working life and not to the value of money today.
That is why the Government's new National Insurance Scheme will result in everybody being back on the National Assistance level within fifteen years simply by the automatic rise in the size of the national economy and in prices. Automatically, therefore, it will be levelled out.
It is for that reason that we look at the Government's proposals for National Assistance with such grave suspicion. The Government's proposals about National Assistance seem to us to be the most immured and permanent part of their outlook. They have introduced so-called wage-related pensions which are not wage-related pensions at all but merely a method of taxing a certain section of the working class.
All they have done positively is to say that where there is a real increase in the standard of living they will give a share of it to those on National Assistance. It is an extremely striking fact that the Government should have emphasised on this occasion that the National Assistance scales are being increased not because of an increase in the cost of living but simply because they think that the very poor should share in the increasing living standards of the rest of us.
Of course, we agree, but why should not those who are not quite so poor—the millions of other pensioners—be given their share in increasing living standards? That can be done only by an increase in the basic rate of pension. That is the case which we put against the Government.
When the National Insurance Bill was in Committee, I quoted a relevant passage from the Labour Party document, "National Superannuation", which is also relevant in this connection. On page 16 of that document, there is a paragraph under the heading:
The Dead End: A False Escape Route".
This was written three years ago, and it says:
On this theory, provision for old age should wherever possible be undertaken either by the employer on behalf of his employee or by the individual citizen through an insurance company. As for the State, it should come to the rescue only where need is proven
as it did under the old Poor Law. A Government which adopted this philosophy could …
escape from our present difficulties.
The method to be adopted would he the encouragement of private pension schemes, combined with improved scales of National Assistance, while the retirement pension was frozen. This would sharpen still further the division between the two nations. On one side there would be the lucky minority, who can rely either on an employer's superannuation scheme or on an insurance policy as their main provision for old age. On the other side would be found the majority of the population for whom superannuation is not available. They would be faced with the necessity of subjecting themselves to a means test in order to avoid destitution.
At the end of that paragraph we added the following singularly unsuccessful prophecy:
Not even the Tories, with their belief in the virtues of self-help …
… to advocate this escape route.
That is precisely what they have dared to advocate. We underestimated the deepness and sincerity of the Tory conviction. I am now beginning to see that the hon. Gentlemen really do believe that it is their duty in life to get rid of comprehensive social services earned as of right through contributions or received as of right through taxation and where the only means test is a tax—that is the sort of way in which we believe—and to reintroduce the concept that to get social welfare one must prove need and that if one cannot prove need one has to fend for oneself.
That is the philosophy in America with regard to health. We thought that we had got rid of that philosophy in this country, but it has come back in a series of Measures which have culminated in those before us and which are a quite deliberate departure by the Government from the principles which they themselves were preaching only a few months ago.
Having dealt with the long-term problem, I now want to deal with the short-term problem. It is all very well for the Government to say: "Yes, we have saved a lot of money. It would have cost something like £200 million to put 10s. on the basic pension. Look how cheap this is, it is only costing £32 million." Let us see what "cheap" means. It means that the full benefit has been denied because the money is not going to be paid out in improving the living standards of all those who are aged.
Our friends on the Tory side say that about 1 million pensioners are well off, and they always quote Field Marshal Montgomery. No one denies that some of those who would receive a 10s. a week increase are better off. In the National Health Service we accepted the view that all the people should enjoy the Health Service as citizens of this country. We accepted the principle of children's allowances. We accepted the principle of the National Insurance Act. We wrote it in, and it is outrageous to quote the example of Field Marshal Montgomery who, after all, pays back in tax half of what he receives. The fact that the extra money is denied to the Field Marshal means that it is denied to 2 million people who are not at all well off. The better off have as much right as the very poor to a share in the rising prosperity.
Nobody has told us the exact number of people who will get help through this increase. Let us take it that it is something like 1¼ million. Let us take it that 1 million people are lucky and have a private superannuation or other income. That still leaves, in the middle, a large number of people who are not dramatically poor, who are not on the edge of destitution, but who have a standard of living far lower than we have any right to enforce on them in a country which claims to be prosperous.
We believe that £200 million of the £366 million that the Government had available this year should have been spent on increasing the basic pensions of the unemployed, the sick and the aged. We also think that it should have gone to those on National Assistance. We are not content to be told that this is a kind, good and generous Government, because they are going to rub off the ugly edges of National Assistance while leaving these millions of people denied their right to a share in the national prosperity.
This has been a very quiet debate and a good one. It is good that we should discuss these things objectively, but I doubt if things will be quite as quiet outside the House as they are inside. As in many other things, I think the Government have misjudged the people. I think they have misjudged the people's willingness to pay increased contributions for solving this social problem, and also solving the problem of one's old age when one gets there.
The people of this country are not prepared to go back to the principle of the Poor Law, however much it is decked out with modern civilisation, nor to any social service which has a means test, however nicely it is done. The Minister shakes his head, but it is wrong to say that National Assistance is going to be made nice. It should be made as tolerable as possible, but it should not be disguised. It must be understood that everybody who receives assistance is required to give the exact amount of his income and must prove poverty. That is a totally different concept from the old-age pension as of right, the unemployment benefit as of right, and the sickness benefit as of right which we thought we had established in the Acts which founded the Welfare State. We believe that when it comes to the election the people, of this country will emphatically reassert their rights to those benefits.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East (Mr. Marquand) opened the debate with a most thoughtful speech, which set the tone of the debate, and the subsequent contributions fulfilled my hopes that we might have a debate closely concerned with the problems of the least well off members of the community. I am sorry that the hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) has let down the tone of the debate. There is one thing he said which he will be sorry to have on the record, as will his party. He remarked that National Assistance is intended to relieve destitution; that that is all that it is there for. After all that has been done by the National Assistance Board, created by his own party and supported by us all, it really shocks me to hear him say that that is all that it is there for. But I will deal with him later.
I have been asked a number of genuine questions about the Regulations which we are now considering and I shall do my best to answer them. First, the debate has shown that there is agreement on all sides about the value of the work done by the Board and its officers. Tributes have been paid to their experience, understanding and humanity, and I would add the word "patience". That, in itself, has contributed to overcoming the reluctance which many people undoubtedly felt in the past to apply for National Assistance. At the same time there has been a growing degree of contact between the people and the Board's officers. That has also helped to overcome reluctance.
There is an increasing awareness on the part of the public that help is available where need exists, and that this is an essential part of our social services. Hon. Members who have read the Report of the National Assistance Board for 1958 will have noted that the first paragraph on the subject of organisation and staffing says:
The Board's officers are civil servants, exercising their functions on behalf of the Crown. Yet their work is of a kind not usually associated with civil servants, in that, although required to conform with nationwide standards approved by Parliament, they are entrusted with a wide discretion in determining grants out of public funds to correspond with the great variety of human needs. Many applicants have no other means of living; others come to the Board because they cannot make do with what they get from other sources; including National Insurance benefits. Their need, whatever the cause of it, is often urgent and must be attended to without delay by those having the duty to meet it.
That defines the job the Board had given to it in 1948, and the way its officers carry it out. It shows that the work done is often outside the normal duties of the Civil Service, and the warmth and humanity which the Board's officers bring to it.
Before I leave the question of the way in which these officers discharge their duties, the understanding and goodwill that they have built up, I am sure that the Board would wish me to record its appreciation of the voluntary work done by its local advisory committees. Hon. Members who have read the 1958 Report will have noticed that the report of welfare cases in Appendix X shows both the Board's officers and its voluntary committees in action, and again emphasises the welfare work done by the Board in addition to its distribution of the money voted by Parliament.
We have accepted National Assistance as part of the pattern of our social services, and that means that the community accepts a responsibility to meet the needs of its least well-off members. Today the community as a whole is enjoying a level of prosperity higher than ever before, and the National Assistance Board and the Government have decided that the time has come, because of the steady improvement in our economic position, which justifies this action, to give to those least well-off—in the majority of cases people who are not in a position to benefit from increased earnings—some share in our rising prosperity.
I think that the answer to the hon. Gentleman the Member for East Ham, North (Mr. Prentice), who asked why we did not increase National Assistance to this extent last year, is that the economic position today is much more favourable to enable us to take action. The most important change, in the changes recommended in the Regulations and the Bill, is in the standards. The increase in basic rates accounts for £27 million out of the estimated total of £32 million.
There have been six increases, as the House will perhaps remember, since 1948, when National Assistance was introduced. These increases have maintained the 1948 standards—in fact, have gone rather further than that—and therefore, the increase now proposed is a clear improvement and represents a substantial gain. I was glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Middlesbrough, East said that he recognised that this represented an increased standard of National Assistance.
I will come to some of the other points which the right hon. Gentleman made. He said that we all wished to see improvements in National Assistance and rejoiced in the prompt action taken because we wanted to get the extra money into the pockets of the people as quickly as possible. I am very glad to tell him that that will happen automatically. The Board's officers will review every case and give the increase due. No one need apply for it; indeed, if people do apply it might slightly embarrass the Board by the addition of extra work.
The right hon. Gentleman also asked me about the position of children below the age of 18, a matter with which I know that he is concerned and one which he has frequently ventilated in the House. He still thinks that the rates of National Assistance proposed are inadequate for children below the age of 18. The rates themselves represent quite a good increase proportionately on the present rates, and I hope that it may comfort the right hon. Gentleman when I tell him the percentages. For a married couple the percentage increase now proposed is 12 per cent. and for a single householder, 11 per cent. When we come to children in the 16 to 18 age group, the increase proposed is 15 per cent., for the 11 to 15 age group, it is again 15 per cent., for the 5 to 10 age group, it is 12 per cent., and for the under-5's, 10 per cent. In addition, there is the point, which the right hon. Gentleman himself acknowledged, that in cases where National Assistance is paid a mother qualifies for welfare foods, and in many cases free school meals are available.
The right hon. Gentleman was concerned also about widows and he asked the specific question, "Can we have a chapter on the position of widows in the next Report of the Board?" I am happy to tell him that the Board takes this matter very seriously, as does the right hon. Gentleman himself. Just as a few years ago the Board's officers undertook a special survey of the very old people living alone, so now it is actively engaged in a similar survey and an inquiry into the needs of widows with young children to make sure that everything possible is being done to meet any special need and to put them in touch, where appropriate, with all the other services that might help them.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about rent increases and the Rent Act, and was concerned about landlords receiving rent increases when they had not carried out the necessary repairs to the houses. He asked what responsibility the Government accepted to ensure that the repairs were done. It is a matter for the Assistance Board and I am told that before any rent increases are met, its officers check that the provisions of the Act have been satisfied—that the notice has been served in the proper form, and that the amount does not exceed the statutory limit. The Board also advises tenants in appropriate cases about their statutory remedy, applying to the local authority for a certificate of disrepair, although it cannot usurp the functions of the local authority under the Rent Act. But the Board does try to help in these matters.
During the speech of the right hon. Gentleman his hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Mrs. Slater) who is not now present in the Chamber, intervened to say that she knew of a specific case where a landlord was pocketing the increase without having done the repairs. If that be so, I should be grateful if she would communicate with me, or with the Chairman of the Board, so that the matter may be looked at.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East thought that we should work to integrate National Assistance with National Insurance. The hon. Member 'for East Ham, North also made this point, as did my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Nottingham, Central (Lieut.-Colonel Cordeaux), and I thought that my hon. Friend the Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) seemed to feel that mergers were in the air.
I wonder what the right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East had in mind when he used the phrase, "Work to integrate National Assistance with National Insurance." Does he mean to do away with the National Assistance Board which has performed such valuable service and has, in addition, the merit of being independent? There is, of course, already a link between the Board and my Department in that the Department answers in Parliament for the Board; but has it not been proved that there is considerable value in having an independent authority able to make recommendations to the Government? I feel that the extraordinarily good record of work by the Board in the past eleven years is itself an argument for maintaining that independence.
The right hon. Member for Middlesbrough, East said he wished that we could raise National Assistance rates even higher. That seemed to contradict his earlier statement that he did not like to see nearly 2½ million people in receipt of National Assistance. If the rates were raised, it would make it possible for more people to be brought in.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Tiley) asked whether more use could be made of radio programmes in order to make better known the forms of National Assistance benefits and their flexibility. Talks have been given on the radio over the years. In particular, National Assistance is referred to in the "Can I Help You" programme. I noticed recently, on one of the rare occasions when I was able to look at a television programme, that "Dixon of Dock Green" was helping a potential criminal to go straight and recommended him firmly to go round the corner and see the National Assistance officer. That sort of human programme is most calculated to help to make known the work of the Board.
The hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees (Mr. Chetwynd) asked how many more people will be brought within the scope of National Assistance by increasing the scale rates, and I will return to that point later. The hon. Member was concerned that a boy of 15 was not eligible to claim National Assistance but had to wait until he was 16 in order to qualify in his own right. The hon. Gentleman instanced the case of a boy who might have left school and be unemployed and his parents could obtain no aid in order to keep him. I do not wish to appear controversial about this, but it was right hon. and hon. Gentlemen opposite who fixed 16 as the age when an individual might apply for National Assistance in his own right. Presumably, that age was fixed on the assumption that children below the age of 16 are still school children and would be the responsibility of their parents. Surely it is a matter of definition. At what age do we say that a child is no longer the responsibility of the parents? I suppose that is why the age was fixed at 16. Then the hon. Gentleman asked me—
There is no proposal to alter it. The hon. Gentleman asked me about the letting of rooms; another hon. Member was on the same point. I assume that this is a case of sub-letting, either furnished or unfurnished, and not of taking in boarders. Sums obtained from sub-letting are deducted in arriving at the net rent for which the Board allows. Before any deduction is made, allowance is made for expenses connected with the sub-letting, such as for heating, lighting and wear-and-tear of furniture. The exact amount then depends upon the circumstances, such as whether the room is let furnished or not and whether lighting is provided. The allowances are reasonably generous and should not deter anyone from sub-letting who wants to. If the hon. Gentleman has any case in mind which he would like to bring to our notice I hope that he will refer it either to us or to the Chairman of the Board.
Both the hon. Member for Stockton-on-Tees and the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ellis Smith) referred to a specific case of difficulty about legal aid. Legal aid is not the responsibility of the National Assistance Board but of the Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Scotland. It has its own rules, which are laid down in the Legal Aid Acts. Capital is dealt with in an entirely different way from National Assistance. Two things—income disregards and allowances for dependent children—are the same as in the National Assistance scales. That is why it is necessary to provide in the Bill for changes in disregards to apply to legal aid. The increase in children's scale that we propose in the Regulations will automatically be accepted as the same for the applicant for legal aid.
In answer to the hon. Gentleman's particular question, I would remind him that the Attorney-General made it clear, in the debate on 24th February, that it was intended to liberalise the means test for legal aid and the Motion agreed recognised
that it is desirable to modify the financial provisions of the legal-aid scheme when circumstances permit.
The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South paid the usual tribute to the Board and a very generous tribute to the Chairman of the Board, which I was very glad to notice. He was sure that the majority of the public would agree that the rates for National Assistance should go even higher, and he felt that this share in the
national prosperity was not enough. He wanted more uniformity in calculating rent allowances and asked whether we had uniformity in the disregards and the discretionary additions. Another hon. Member also raised that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Mr. J. Eden) asked me about charitable payments. The Board does not ordinarily allow two charitable payments to be counted as disregards. My hon. Friend referred to forms in the post office and asked whether they explained in detail about National Assistance. Perhaps he has not seen one of the forms. I have one which I took out of my handbag—if I can find it—which deals with disregards, capital and the rest of it. I hope that my hon. Friend will collect one of these forms from the Post Office so that next time he goes to his constituency he can have one ready.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West, also suggested the use of a pro forma when application is being made and the applicant is being interviewed. Other hon. Members corrected him. Such a form is in fact used. The officer of the Board asks the applicant questions and usually fills in the answers. He reads it back to the applicant to make sure that that individual knows what answers he has given, before the complete application goes through.
The hon. Member for Feltham (Mr. Hunter) said that this will help those on the lowest end of the ladder.
Before the hon. Lady leaves the question of disregards, will she answer the important point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) about the disregard of savings? Have the Government any intention of taking into account, not only National Savings and Post Office savings, but others? Great hardship is expected under the present system.
The hon. Member for Coventry, East asked me about war savings and I was going to answer that no change is proposed. The answer to the question asked by the hon. Lady for Lanarkshire, North (Miss Herbison) is covered by the fact that we now take the disregard for capital up to £600. The hon. Member for Feltham asked about rents, when the rent is high will the Board meet it? In most cases, apart from shared households, the Board is meeting the rent in full and will continue to do so. It cannot give an unlimited undertaking that it will do so, nor that it will meet any rent without limit, but any rent which is not unreasonably high, or extravagant in relation to a person's circumstances, is met.
I am sorry, but I cannot give way again as I have so much to say and there are only ten minutes left. The hon Member for Feltham asked about lump sum grants for clothing and said that he thought that they were not sufficiently widely known. The Report states that 152,000 lump sum grants were made last year. They were mostly for clothing. I come to the speech of the hon. Member for Islington, South-West (Mr. A. Evans) who asked, as did the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South, about the number of discretionary awards and seemed to feel particularly concerned that they were increasing. I should have thought he would be happy that they were increasing. It is a testimony to the skill and work of the Board's officers that they are finding more and more people to whom they are able to give discretionary allowances. That shows that the Board looks for need of every kind and, where it can meet it, it provides the means for doing so.
I have tried to deal generally with the points which have been raised in the debate and, in winding up, I wish to endeavour to reply further to the hon. Member for Coventry, East. I did, however, say that I should deal with the numbers who might be attracted by the changes. It is impossible to forecast with any accuracy how many more people will come on to National Assistance.
It is impossible to forecast the number because never before has there been a combination of facts on this scale—the increase in the scale rates and the disregards, the changes in the terms used and the emphasis this debate has shown over and over again on people's right to National Assistance. Furthermore, there is always a considerable turnover in applications. A new generation is growing up. Some will have the benefit of occupational pensions, and all will have the benefit of full employment. Many of them will have had opportunities to save. We do not know how many of those who wish to apply or need to apply for National Assistance, but at a guess—I am prepared to guess—the number is around 100,000. It could be less; it could be more.
No. It is certainly a rough estimate—as it has to be—but there is included in that £32 million a sum of £1 million for the number who may come on additionally.
There was some discussion on the title to be used. The comments which have been made, particularly those by my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West will be considered by the Board.
The hon. Member for Coventry, East asked, "Is it Government policy to increase the number who have to go to the Board? Is it Government policy to increase the number of those compelled to go to the Board?" Nobody is compelled to go to the Board. Nobody has to go to the Board. What we are doing is to raise the scales so that those people who apply for National Assistance can enjoy some share in the increased prosperity of the nation.
He asked me specifically whether there was any change in Government policy. I will give him a categorical answer. No; the Government's policy is still the same. He commented that in Committee on the National Insurance Bill I said that our aim was to reduce the number on National Assistance. That was so and it is still so. The fact that we are able to increase the scale rates is a reflection that we are able to do better for those people most in need but does not necessarily mean that we want more people to apply.
Was it the Government's anxiety to reduce the number of people on National Assistance which led them to reduce National Assistance by 5s. last year and to give a spurious rise in pensions?
Had the hon. Member remained here throughout the debate I should have given way, but I must press on to answer the questions which I have been asked.
The hon. Member for Coventry, East said that a series of Acts had been passed by the Government which took us further and further away from subsistence. That is entirely incorrect. We have improved the National Insurance pension and have maintained its value. Indeed, we have more than maintained its value compared with that when his own party were in power.
I will try to sum up. The changes which we propose give help where it is most needed and the increased scale rates will raise the level of this integral part of the social services. The improvements in the disregards take account of changes in the value of money thus benefiting those with some resources but still insufficient for their needs. The change in the rent rule will enable the Board to take account of rent in full in households of earning members, leaving those earning members to meet only their fair share of the rent.
Although it is true that the change may bring more people within the scope of National Assistance, this does not mean—nor do I think it has been taken as meaning in the country—any reduction in the importance which the Government attach to the principle of National Insurance with benefits paid for by contributions. The Government stand by the statements made repeatedly from the Front Bench and repeated by my right hon. Friend today that we shall keep the rates of these benefits constantly under review. Our record in the past on National Insurance scales entitles us to ask that those words be taken seriously.
I am glad that the whole House agrees to accept these Regulations and the Bill, which will give help to those least able to help themselves. The debate has served to emphasise that in our modern society the community accepts responsibility for assisting those in need. The contributions made from both sides of the House have added to the good reputation which the Board has made for itself for the understanding and sympathy with which it administers the service. National Assistance is available to everyone as a right to be used as freely as we use any other part of the comprehensive system of social services. These proposals still further improve that part of our social services.
It might be well if we could have your guidance, Mr. Speaker, at this point. I understand, Sir, that we are now entitled to speak on the Bill. Therefore, the discussion from this point may be a little narrower than it has been during the day. Am I right in that assumption? May we continue the debate which was started at 3.30 this afternoon?
When the Minister rose to move the Motion to approve the Regulations, it was put to me that it would be for the convenience of the House if, in discussing the Motion, hon. Members could also discuss the principle of the Bill which is to follow. I agreed to that course, and it was agreed to on both sides of the House. The position is that the first Order, the Regulations, is in any case exempted business, having been made in pursuance of a Statute. The Rule about business terminating at Ten o'clock, Standing Order No. 1, has been suspended in respect of the National Assistance Bill, but I thought that no one wished to address the House when I rose to put the Question.
On a point of order. In the light of what you have told us about the time-table, Mr. Speaker, could you enlighten us about the position, not of the Order which you have told us is not affected in time because of the suspension of the Rule, but what effect this position has had on the Second Reading of the Bill?
The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood the position. The first Order, the Regulations, is in any case exempted business to which Standing Order No 1 does not apply. The Standing Order has been specifically abolished by the Motion in respect of the Bill which normally would be interrupted at ten o'clock. That is the position.
I am glad to see that the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Sir S. Summers) has returned to the Chamber. Before he left, he had time to make an attack on my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell (Mr. Lawson). In the course of his speech, he referred to the fact that my hon. Friend said that this was principally a political matter. The hon. Gentleman disagreed with that, and in dealing with it he was greatly concerned with the question of balance. I should like to remind him, however, that he has been taking a fairly prominent part in another Bill which is still before the House, namely, the Finance Bill, where we are faced, not with a balance, but with a disbalance.
In that Bill, there is an overall deficit of £180 million. Despite that deficit of £180 million, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been able to pay in reliefs to the well-to-do, to the brewers and to others £366 million. He is trading on the fact that, because of the prosperity that we hope to see coming to the country through the revival of work and through the working men and women of this country, there will not be the necessity for doing what he might possibly have to do, namely, to borrow to the extent of nearly £700 million to cover his Budget. It seems strange that when the hon. Member is confronted with the case put forward by my hon. Friend, he should immediately say that this is an economic matter and not a political one. He has not, however, raised that argument on any Amendment which has come before us on the Finance Bill.
I should like particularly to deal with the question of disregards, which, as has been pointed out, have been raised to £600. I want to consider exactly what that means. Of the £600, £375 will be disregarded if it is war savings; there will be a basic disregard of £100 and then other investments will be disregarded to the extent of £124 19s. 11d., making a total disregard for investments up to £599 19s. 11d. If any individual who applies for assistance increases those savings by one single penny, he automatically rules himself out because then he has £600.
I know that a limit must be put somewhere. It is not, however, with the total that I disagree—I would like to have seen it a little higher—but with the method of approach. Why distinguish war savings? When opening the debate this afternoon, the Minister admitted that this was a provision which might well be considered again, as, I hope, will be the case, because in continuing it we are doing something wrong.
It may be that the Minister is handicapped because legislation is required if any alteration is to be made, but that should not present any difficulty. I want the right hon. Gentleman to think for a moment about what is happening. The effect is that the Government are directing savings. We are not saying to people that so much will be disregarded. We are telling those who may be applicants for help from the National Assistance Board that the savings which they have made during their lifetime must be placed in certain sources.
The history of this concession is that during the war the support of the trade union movement was enlisted for the war savings movement. The trade unions said that they would give their active support with public messages and exhortations from the Trades Union Congress only on condition that the savings so made should not be used against those who saved if at any time they had to apply for public or other forms of assistance. That is the history of the matter, and that is why the concession relates solely to war savings and to no other.
Had the hon. Member followed the course of our earlier debate more closely, he would have appreciated that the basis on which he is putting his argument—that the £375 war savings is included in and subtracted from the present £400 capital disregard, which it is proposed to raise to £600—is untrue. On the contrary, the £375 war savings, whose origin is precisely as the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) has stated, is separate from, and additional to, the general capital disregard. If the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) appreciates that, he will appreciate that a good deal of his cause for complaint is unfounded.
No. At least, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman may be able to deal with the second aspect of the argument. I am not so much putting an argument as raising a matter which is causing distress to a great many people.
Let me put it in another way. There is discrimination being used against particular savings. I am thinking of the Cooperative movement. It is already admitted by the Treasury that there is a recognised anomaly, because if an individual holds his savings in the Co-operative movement he is not given the same consideration as an individual who holds his savings in trustee savings banks and other recognised places.
We recognise and we thank the right hon. Gentleman for the fact that the total disregard for Co-operative savings has been increased from £72 19s. 11d. to £124 19s. 11d. All we are asking is that there should be no discrimination, that wherever the savings are held they should be treated in exactly the same way, because, after all, we are dealing with small savings. We are dealing in particular, in the Co-operative movement, with people who save as they buy. They are small savings. We encouraged them in this Parliament to increase those savings to the extent of £500. and now when their hour of need arrives we say to them that all that can be disregarded in their case is £124 19s. 11d. I do not know how that can be accepted as an unfair claim—
I apologise. I did not know I was looking at my hon. Friend in an accusing manner. I was grateful for his intervention. I was looking at him in the anticipation that, maybe, after I finish, he would rise to support the case which I was hoping to make.
I do believe that in this method of treatment of different forms of saving we have an anomaly. I recognise that the right hon. Gentleman may find it difficult to deal with. He may say that we must have legislation, or that we may not need legislation. If we do not, if it is within his power to remedy this anomaly, will he do it? If it is not within his power, will he do what he can to see that amending legislation is introduced to deal with it? Will he recognise what has already been admitted by the Treasury, that this discrimination is an anomaly? If that is the case, it should be dealt with.
Yes. The reason I am putting the point is that, if it is within the compass of the right hon. Gentleman to deal with it, it is of course our business to frame the appropriate amending legislation. But perhaps the right hon. Gentleman can guide us tonight before we part with this Measure by telling us what exactly is the position.
I trust that, with the permission of the House, the Minister will be able to intervene later and deal with this point. I know that when he opened the debate he referred to the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Beswick) had raised this point last Monday. It may have been my fault, but I did not follow very clearly what was the right hon. Gentleman's attitude. I hope that he will make himself quite clear on a matter which concerns millions of people who are small savers but who have put their savings in a channel which is not receiving the recognition which it ought to receive in the National Assistance Bill.
I apologise for detaining the House at this late hour but I want particularly to make one or two points on the Bill itself. The Bill is so drawn that I doubt very much whether it will be possible to move Amendments to it. There will be thus no Committee or Report stages, and on Third Reading it will not be possible for me to refer to matters which are not in the Bill. Therefore, if I do not do so tonight there will be no other opportunity.
The Bill comes as the culmination of the "new look" to the Government's social service policy. We have had four main changes. There has been the introduction of a very weak and watery wage-related national pension scheme. What is more important, there has been the repudiation by the Government of commitments, which they had previously undertaken to meet from the Exchequer, by way of deficit on the National Insurance Scheme. The last time I said this in the Chamber the Minister whispered in the ear of his Joint Parliamentary Secretary who immediately jumped up to deny that the undertaking had ever been given by the Government.
Since then, I have had the opportunity of looking it up. I find that the Minister referred to the fact that deficits at present anticipated on the existing National Insurance Scheme would have to be met by the taxpayer. This was in a debate on Second Reading of one of his own Bills a couple of years ago. I can only assume that the Minister himself has now read his previous speech and therefore is not whispering in his Parliamentary Secretary's ear any more on that score.
There has been complete repudiation of what was up to a few months ago both Tory and Labour Government policy—that the emerging deficit on the National Insurance Fund should be met from the Exchequer. Now, under the National Insurance Bill which was read a Third time a short time ago, this will be met by contributors on earnings of £9 to £15 a week.
The third episode in this sordid story before us this evening is the obvious fact, despite denials, that in future National Assistance will form a permanent part of the social security system on which large numbers of people will have to rely for many years to come. The fourth point is that we have had a repudiation now by virtue of these Regulations, of any intention of providing through a National Insurance scheme subsistence rates of benefits.
Against that background I want to refer particularly to the provision made in the Bill to allow the Minister to increase by Order any of the amounts prescribed in paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Second Schedule of the National Assistance Act, 1948. I would remind the House that after discussion in the House we have decided to start through the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance a wage-related provision for retirement benefit. Paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Second Schedule, which he will have power to alter by Order, will allow the Minister to increase the disregards—capital disregards and what I might call revenue disregards. At present when anyone who is drawing a pension or a payment from charity or from some other source weekly applies for National Assistance, he can have 10s. 6d. of that disregarded in the assessment of whether or not he is entitled to supplementation from the National Assistance Board.
We have been informed that once this Bill becomes an Act it is intended to increase the 10s. 6d. to 15s., but there is provision in paragraph 5 of the Second Schedule to the National Assistance Act which specifically makes it impossible for the Board to disregard any payments that are received from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance as the result of an application for National Assistance. When the Act was passed in 1948 it referred to the then pension of 26s. a week which had been approved by Parliament only eighteen months before. It applies at the present moment to the flat-rate benefit of £2 10s. a week for a single person and £4 a week for a married couple, or such extra little bits as may have been earned by postponing retirement. We shall reach the position as the years go by where people will be getting, in effect, two separate pensions from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance. They will be drawing the flat-rate benefit of £2 10s. or £4 a week, or whatever it happens to be but, in addition to that, in return for wage-related contributions, they will receive a wage-related benefit.
I draw your attention to the fact, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that for some years they will have to contribute towards the wage-related benefit, and thus they are also contributing towards similar wage-related benefit provided by their employer. If they contract out of the State scheme and contribute towards a pension provided by their employer when they retire, and if they find it necessary to apply for National Assistance, the first 15s. of any benefit they are drawing from the employer will be disregarded without affecting their right to a National Assistance supplement. If, however, they come into the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance wage-related scheme, and they pay their contribution of 10s. 2d. a week if they are earning £15 a week, when they reach retirement whatever wage-related pension they are drawing from the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance cannot, under paragraph 5 of the Second Schedule to the National Assistance Act, be disregarded by the National Assistance Board if, and when, any application is made to the Board for supplementation.
That is a glaring omission from this Bill. We are providing, by legislation at present before Parliament, that everybody earning over £9 a week must make provision for wage-related benefit in retirement, either with the Ministry or with the employer by some other means. We are providing by this Bill that if they choose, in agreement with the employer, to make that provision with him and not with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, they will be in a more favourable position as regards National Assistance than if they make their wage-related provision with the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance.
We see from the Report of the National Assistance Board that in December, 1958, the average payment being made to retirement pensioners in supplementation of National Insurance benefit by the National Assistance Board was 15s. 2d. a week. I do not know the exact figure but we can assume fairly safely from the Regulations we are discussing that it is almost certain that the 15s. 2d. a week average payment will go up to 21s. or 22s. I will take the lower figure for my example. The increase of 5s. for a single person and 9s. for a married couple is sure to take the average up from 15s. 2d. to 21s. a week. If it does not, I cannot see the purpose of the Regulations. So we shall have over 1 million pensioners receiving from the National Assistance Board an average of 21s. a week. May I draw your attention to the fact, Mr. Deputy-Speaker, that it will be 1984—a rather ominous year—before anyone will Dc able to draw 21s. a week wage-related pension from the Ministry of National Insurance?
I apologise to the hon. Lady the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, because I have made the same mistake as I did in Committee by forgetting that in the years from 1980 to 1983 there will be six or seven widows every year whose husbands were earning £15 a week and remained in employment over the age of 65 and their wives also earned £15 a week and remained in employment until just over 60, who may be getting 21s. a week by 1982. For the vast majority of people it will be 1984 before anyone draws 21s. a week from the Ministry of National Insurance in wage-related pension. Yet that is the amount by which we are putting up the average National Assistance rate by the Order.
It seems to me that because of that the vast majority of the National Insurance pensioners who have not some other pension from a private source will be forced to go to the National Assistance Board for many years to come, which supports my contention that we are deciding tonight to make National Assistance a permanent feature of our social security system for as far ahead as one can see.
In fairness to the people who are to get such small benefits from the wage-related section of the National Insurance scheme, it is absolutely essential, whether we like it or not, whether it is a question of putting more people on National Assistance or anything of that nature, that we should ensure that they are given the same facilities with regard to the claiming of National Assistance as the person who has a private pension scheme.
As I said, a man earning £15 a week will have to pay 10s. 2d. a week for the miserable 21s. which he will be entitled to draw in 1984. He is being forced to pay 10s. 2d. a week for it when it is actually costing only 4s. 4d. Someone getting 21s. a week from a private scheme will be able to have 15s. of it disregarded, and he has probably paid a lot less than 10s. 2d. a week for it. Yet he can go to the Board and have 15s. of it disregarded when the Board is assessing whether or not he should be eligible for National Assistance.
I plead with the Minister to give the same facility to the person who has to go into a compulsory State scheme of wage-related pensions as has been given for many years now to persons in voluntary schemes of one kind and another in friendly societies and bodies of that nature. In fairness, if we compel people to go into a State scheme, which is 90 per cent, taxation and only 10 per cent, superannuation anyway, we should not put them in a worse position than other people in private schemes in obtaining money from the National Assistance Board when they retire and need it. I hope the Minister will look at the matter again. I do not think it is possible to amend the Bill to cover the point that I have in mind, but I hope the Minister will reconsider it and agree to the suggestion I have made.
I join my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) on the question of discrimination in relation to savings disregarded. It is true to say that the £375 was disregarded by agreement with the trade union movement, and it was done for the purpose of giving an incentive to people to put their money into savings certificates. No other kind of savings to any degree was disregarded.
It is well known by the Minister and the House that for four or five years I have ardently advocated the reconsideration of the disregards. I am disappointed that those who are responsible for fixing the disregards have not taken a greater interest in the discrimination between savings in War Savings Certificates and savings in the Co-operative movement. This has been a sore point with many co-operators who have allowed their dividends to remain in the Co-operative movement only to find that only a part of those savings could be treated as disregards if they had to seek National Assistance.
I cannot understand why there should be a line of demarcation between war savings and savings in the Co-operative movement. I know that it is rather late in the day for a change to be made, but I ask the right hon. Gentleman to consider this matter between now and the next Budget. I cannot understand why the National Assistance Board should disregard £375 when the money is in War Savings Certificates and only £125 when the money is in the Co-operative movement. There is no sense of fair play about that.
If people save money by allowing their dividends to remain in the Cooperative movement, why should they be treated differently from people who save their money by buying War Savings Certificates?
Has the hon. Gentleman noted one possible effect of what he is advocating, namely, that if all savings are to be treated alike, there is a grave risk that the £375 of War Savings Certificates will become part of the ceiling of £600 of which it is not now part? Alternatively, is he asking for the ceiling to be £975 and not made up of two parts as at present?
What I am asking is that the people with savings in War Savings Certificates and those with savings in the Co-operative movement should be treated in the same way. I am not asking that the authorities should have regard to what is to happen in twenty years' time. The old-age pensioners are concerned about what is happening today. Why should I find that only £125 of my savings in the Co-operative movement are disregarded while £375 of the savings of my next-door neighbour are disregarded merely because they happen to be in War Savings Certificates? There is a thick line of demarcation between one saver and another.
I know that this difficulty has arisen because in the First World War the trade union movement was afraid that if we followed the invitation of the Government and bought War Savings Certificates, that might be held against us if we ever fell into difficulties, and it was agreed that a given amount invested in War Savings Certificates would be disregarded. But it does not need a mathematician or statistician to see the trouble which arises through this different treatment of savings in those certificates and savings in the Co-operative movement.
Savings in the Co-operative movement, like those in War Savings Certificates, are used for maintaining the country's economic stability. There is no difference. They may be used in a different way, but the ultimate aim is the same. Therefore, there is something to be said for the point of view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Govan, about the disagreement and disturbance in the minds of one section of the community as against another.
Why, in the name of goodness, cannot we make the two disregards alike? If it is honest and just to disregard £375 of War Savings Certificates it is honest and just to disregard the savings made through the medium of the Co-operative movement. There is no difference. They are both savings which should be taken into consideration in assessing the amount of National Assistance that an applicant should receive. I ask the Minister to look at this matter again and to see whether, even if he cannot bring the two to equality, he can bring them much nearer together and attain a higher degree of parity, which will remove the dissatisfaction that at present exists.
The Joint Parliamentary Secretary declined to give way to me earlier in the debate on the ground that I had not been present throughout the debate. It may have escaped her notice that I was present through rather more than half the debate, which is substantially more than most hon. Members of her own party were.
In the course of her speech she said two things to which I want to refer. First, she repeated the statement made earlier in Committee on the National Insurance Bill, that it was the object of Government policy to reduce the number of persons on National Assistance and, secondly, that the effect of the Government's present action would be to increase the number of persons on National Assistance.
The second statement is not quite correct. I did not say that the effect would be to increase the number of people on National Assistance. I said that it was probable that the number would be increased, but it was quite impossible to say to what extent.
Yes, but surely it is not in dispute that, although the extent is in doubt, there will be an increase. The hon. Lady mentioned that part of the money involved has that increase in mind. I must repeat my statement that at any rate one of the effects of what the Government are now doing will be to increase the number of persons on National Assistance.
That seems to be a most extraordinary remark. If the rates are raised there is bound to be an increase in the number drawing National Assistance. The hon. Lady must know that quite well.
How can we reconcile that statement with the previous statement? There is a way in which the two statements can be reconciled, and which I should be glad to see used to reconcile them, and that is by raising the basic rate of the old-age pension. Then it will be possible to have both higher rates of National Assistance and a smaller number of people drawing National Assistance. I want to know if that is what the Government propose to do, because if they do not it is difficult to see how the earlier statement, that the object of the Government is to reduce the number of persons on National Assistance, can be fulfilled.
The substance of that point was contained in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Grossman), and I think that the hon. Lady, who was supposed to be replying to the debate, might have made some attempt to reply to that point. It was apparent to anybody who heard my hon. Friend's speech that it was an extremely serious and important contribution to the subject, and the fact that the hon. Lady was not able to understand it is no excuse for her not making some attempt to answer it.
I also want to refer to the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown) and my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin), on the matter of the discrimination between different kinds of savings for the purpose of disregard. That point was raised earlier in the debate—and perhaps I should say that I was present, and heard it made. The hon. Lady purported to reply to it but her reply was simply that it was not proposed to remove this discrimination. We knew that already. The hon. Lady is not supposed merely to tell us, at the end of the debate, what we already know, what happens to be in the Regulations or Bill, or whatever instrument of Government policy is before the House. Her job is supposed to be to tell us why.
I was pointing out that the hon. Lady merely repeated what we know, and she did not attempt to give an explanation. There may be one. An hon. Member opposite endeavoured to give us one. We are entitled to ask whether that is the Government's explanation for keeping this discrimination in existence. Apparently it is the explanation of the hon. Gentleman, but I do not think that it would satisfy many of us. We are entitled to ask whether that is what the Government have been suggesting and neither the hon. Lady nor the Minister made any attempt to do what the hon. Lady was supposed to do, which was to answer the debate.
May I return to the Regulations [Laughter.]—perhaps hon. Members had better wait to hear what I have to say before they laugh. I wish to ask about a matter which does not seem to be covered in the determination of need. In order to find out what is the position I must state the details of the case which I have in mind.
On the 13th of this month a gentleman was sent to me with a letter from the British Legion Service Committee, and I was asked whether I could give him some advice regarding unemployment pay. I was told that the man came from Liverpool, where the figure of unemployed is about 26,000 or 27,000. He was unemployed and had been signing on at the employment exchange for six weeks, and he had been drawing unemployment pay. The man did not want to be unemployed and he was offered the opportunity to take a course to train as a marine fireman. The course was for a period of three weeks, and the man decided to take it. He was told that if he signed on for the course, he could not sign on at the employment exchange as being unemployed. The fact that he was taking the course meant that he was not available for employment during that period of three weeks. The employment exchange had not offered him any employment for six weeks, and he felt it important that he should attempt to get some form of work. The pay during the training period was 15s. a week.
When he discovered the position the man applied for National Assistance. He
has a wife and three children. Two of the children were eligible for family allowances. The man was told by the National Assistance Board official that because he was not signing on at the employment exchange he was not entitled to National Assistance and neither were his wife and children. I wrote to the area office of the Board and this is the reply I received. I do not wish to give the name of the man, but I will hand the correspondence to the Minister later. The letter stated:
I should explain that under Regulation 14 (1) (b) of the National Insurance (Mariners) Regulations, 1948, a mariner shall be deemed to be available for employment on any day on which he is attending a training course or course of instruction approved by the Minister in his case, and any such day shall be treated as a day of unemployment. The effect of approving such a course is that a person is not disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit to which he would otherwise be entitled merely on the ground that he is not available for work by reason of attendance at the course. A number of courses are concurrently approved under this Regulation, but they are mainly for navigating and engineering officers and for radar officers seeking to obtain the P.M.G.'s Certificate of Proficiency in Wireless Telegraphy. The Minister's approval of courses for ships' firemen and ships' cooks was, however, withdrawn in October, 1955, and it is for this reason that the applicant is not entitled to benefit while attending the course. This was explained to him when he notified us that he was starting a course on Monday, 8th June, and he signed off the register on 6th June.
The fact that he is no longer on the register and claiming benefit probably accounts for the fact that the National Assistance Board will not entertain an application for assistance from him.
When I received that letter on 15th June, I wrote immediately to the office at which the man would draw National Assistance. I wrote putting the position and sent with my letter the letter which I had received from the employment exchange and the letter from the British Legion thinking that, in view of that situation, the man would be entitled, or, at any rate that his wife and three children would be entitled, to a discretionary allowance and National Assistance. I was amazed the following day to receive from the Manchester National Assistance Board the following letter:
Dear Mrs. Braddock, Your letter of 17th June addressed to the Area Officer, Liverpool (Everton) Area Office, has been passed to me. As you know, the applicant is attending a course of instruction as a marine fireman, and the Ministry of Labour and National Service
have ruled that, whilst attending the course, he is disqualified from receiving unemployment benefit. Under Section 8 (3) of the National Assistance Act, the Board may make the payment of assistance condition upon the applicant's registering for employment. It is the Board's view that a person who is fit for work and under pensionable age (and, in the case of a woman, has no dependent children under sixteen living with her) ought not to receive assistance from public funds unless he is prepared to take any suitable employment which is offered to him. They therefore make use of the power given them by Section 8 (3) of the Act to require such persons to register at the Employment Exchange, i.e., to attend the Exchange at prescribed times each week to prove they are unemployed, and that they are available for work. The Board see no reason for departing from this practice in the case of a person who, although perfectly fit for work, is in need because he has chosen to take a specialised course of training, fn their view National Assistance was never intended for people whose resources are insufficient for their support because they have deliberately placed themselves outside the ordinary employment field: in other words, it is not the function of National Assistance to subsidise the following of a special course of training when it is perfectly possible for the person concerned to support himself by taking an ordinary job.
I would remind the House that the man had not been offered a job by the employment exchange during the six weeks that he had been signing on. The letter continued:
Maintenance allowances for such purposes are the responsibility of the Education Authorises. There is no record at the Area Office of any application for National Assistance by the applicant since his benefit ceased, nor of any call by his wife. If, however, she did call, she would be told the position as stated above. The present position is therefore that if the applicant makes an application for assistance, the decision will be that payment will be conditional upon his registering for employment. If he is then dissatisfied, he may appeal to the Appeal Tribunal.
This is a case which is not covered by the Determination of Need Regulations, where a person who has not been offered a vacancy for six weeks in a city where there are 27,000 unemployed took the responsibilty of trying to do something which would give him a better opportunity of employment. His wife and three children are deprived of assistance. That means there is something wrong with the determination of need provisions and some alteration is required in the arrangements for National Assistance.
On Saturday last, the gentleman came to me and I rang up the National Assist- ance Board office and told them that this woman and her three children were destitute, having had nothing for a fortnight but two payments for two children. So far as I knew, no notice had been taken of the application which had been made. This is a matter which should be attended to at once. This man had an opportunity of perhaps obtaining a job after intensive training for a short time. His wife and children should not be left practically starving and unable to pay the rent for three weeks because there is no provision to meet a situation of this sort.
I should like some comment to be made by the Minister about this matter. I shall hand him the correspondence. I still think it completely wrong that any officer of the Board should have the right to refuse assistance to a woman and three children when they are destitute. The Board says it will not pay because the man is not signing on, and he is not signing on because he wants to better himself by taking a recognised—but not by the Ministry sanctioned—three weeks' intensive training. This is a matter which requires looking into. If necessary, something additional should be put in the Regulations to ensure that a case of this sort can be covered.
I do not think that as the mover of the Motion I require the leave of the House to speak again, as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) suggested. My hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary gave an extremely full, clear and comprehensive summing up of the debate. I rise now in courtesy only to reply to those hon. Members who followed her and in order to deal specifically with the points they raised.
The hon. Member for Govan and his hon. Friend the Member for Ince (Mr. T. Brown), whom I do not see in his place—
I sympathise with him. He has been in his place quite a time today. Those hon. Members and the hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) raised the question of the war savings disregard and suggested that in particular it constituted an anomaly and a discrimination against savings in the Co-operative movement. I do not need to repeat the origin of this arrangement because the hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) intervened in the speech of the hon. Member for Govan and gave it extremely clearly. I think he made it clear, as I also tried to do in my speech a great deal earlier today, that this was introduced, not as a feature of the then assistance system or as a disregard introduced on the grounds of social policy, but as a calculated encouragement to war savings. It therefore stands today as that, and not as one of the ordinary disregards.
The hon. Member for Ince pressed for this anomaly, as he called it, to be ended. The National Assistance Act, 1948, already contains a provision that a date may be determined after which no new "war savings" can be acquired. I am afraid I cannot at the moment give the precise section of the Act, but I think the House will take from me the effect of it, which is to provide that, not the Minister of Pensions and National Insurance—who is in very little degree affected—but the Chancellor of the Exchequer can, by Order in Council, name a date after which further war savings will not qualify for being included in the disregard. In that way it would be possible, as apparently was contemplated in 1948, at some date to bring further war savings out of the effect of this disregard.
The Government have no intention at present of exercising that power. On the other hand, as the years pass the time may well come when this provision may be reconsidered. It is extremely difficult to administer, for reasons which are obvious to the House, since it is limited to war savings which are, in the technical term, new money and does not cover war savings bought as a result of a switch of investment. For the time being, however, there is no proposal on foot for my right hon. Friend to deal with the matter in this way.
I am sure that we should be wrong to add to—I will not use the hon. Member's word, "anomaly"—this rather unusual feature simply by including in the £375 further types of saving, however admirable. As I said in my earlier speech, the right, fair and undiscriminating way to deal with the question of savings in a co-operative society, or in any other form, is by increasing the total of the capital disregards. That is precisely what the Regulations seek to do. I am sure that, if the House pauses for a moment to reflect, it will recognise that it would raise intolerable problems simply to add particular types of saving to the extraneous £375. The right thing, surely, is not to discriminate—apart from war savings—in respect of one form of saving or another, but simply to permit an increase in the amount of capital which a recipient of assistance may have.
I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is aware that in making representations on this matter the Cooperative Union has made it clear that it is not asking that the extension should be only to co-operative society savings but should be to all small savings, wherever deposited.
If we extend it to all small savings we complete a circle and we return to the question of what is the right total for the capital disregards. That is precisely the way in which the Regulations propose to tackle the problem.
The hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) will forgive me—and if he does not, I am sure that the House will—if at this stage I do not seek to resume the agreeable, but not necessarily abbreviated, debates which we had on the National Insurance Bill, now in another place. Suffice it for me to say that, as I understand it, it is not the view of any hon. Member that the whole of the emerging deficit should be borne by the Exchequer. Our discussion upstairs turned much more on the precise proportion which should be borne.
The hon. Member raised a point which is certainly relevant to our discussion of National Assistance when he referred to the possibility of including in the disregards graduated National Insurance benefits to be earned in due course under the National Insurance Bill. It is a fact, as he pointed out, that it has so far been accepted as a principle that National Insurance benefits should not be the subject of a disregard. That was inserted into the provisions in 1948 by his right hon. Friends, and that principle has stood the test of eleven years.
I do not feel called on to express any judgment on that subject tonight for a reason which I think he will appreciate. I take his point that the graduated benefit will in some cases be the equivalent of what will be earned in a private scheme in respect of which there is a disregard, but whatever the merits of the argument in respect of graduated National Insurance benefits, no such benefit can possibly be earned until after 1961. There will be ample time between now and then to consider whether it is right to abandon the principle contained in the 1948 Act of not disregarding National Insurance benefits. There will be plenty of time to consider that in the two years which must elapse before any benefit can be earned under the Bill which is still in another place and is not yet an Act of Parliament.
I agree to a great extent with the argument that the Minister is now putting forward. He seems, however, to have forgotten one important factor. One of the reasons why this proposal will not come into operation, as he knows, until 1961 is all the administrative arrangements to be made beforehand and particularly, as we on this side are well aware from our study of the matter, the problem of contracting in and contracting out. If a person now aged 55 must consider whether to remain in an employer's scheme or to come into the State scheme, he wants to know at some time in the next twelve months what will be the position with National Assistance disregards. He will want to know about disregards before the scheme starts in 1961, to help him in deciding whether to contract in or out of the scheme.
That is not a wholly reasonable point of view, for this reason. No doubt, on some future occasion, the House will consider alterations of the disregards, which we are seeking to alter tonight, and nobody in coming to a decision today on the question of contracting out can possibly be entitled to demand to know what disregards may operate, perhaps many years hence, when he may become an applicant for National Assistance. Therefore, whilst the point is one which may well be discussed, I do not think that in considering the more limited question of moving the figures for disregards contained in paragraphs 3 and 5 of the Second Schedule of the 1948 Act, we should be led into forming any final or definite view upon that necessarily somewhat remote position.
The hon. Lady the Member for the Exchange Division of Liverpool (Mrs. Braddock) asked me to comment on a particular case of which she gave details. The hon. Lady will, I am sure, agree with me as to the unwisdom of any Minister commenting at this Box on an individual case of which he has had no previous notice. I make no complaint that I have had no notice, but the hon. Lady will appreciate that I should be extraordinarily unwise to comment on it, the more so as the documents which she read out seemed to suggest that not only is the National Assistance Board involved in this matter, but so also is my right hon. Friend the Minister of Labour and National Service, and also, I understood at one point, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education. In those circumstances, the best I can do for the hon. Lady is to say that I will certainly accept service of the documents which she has offered to me this evening and arrange for the matter to be looked into as speedily as possible. I should not, however, be wise or right to comment on the case.
Except that for three weeks, in a State which is supposed to be in a position to meet all emergencies, a woman and three children have been deprived of any assistance at all because her husband endeavoured to take steps to see whether he could get employment by taking training.
The only reason I do not want to express an opinion is that, first, as the hon. Lady said, this may well be a matter which is taken to the local National Assistance Tribunal—there was a suggestion of that, I think, in the papers—and, therefore, it might well become sub judice. In those circumstances, I must not comment. Secondly, it may be a matter of opinion how best the situation described by the hon. Lady can be met. If, however, she gives me the documents, I will arrange for inquiries to be made without delay.
Those were the points that were raised in this appendix to the debate. Perhaps I might be allowed to say nonetheless that in the course of the main debate, to which my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary so ably replied, I and my right hon. and hon. Friends were very glad to see the large measure of agreement in the House in favour of the proposals. The House, I hope, may now accept that the scales of National Assistance and the associated disregards should be given a substantial increase.
With the leave of the House, I would like to make a brief comment on the Minister's remarks on war savings. Many of us were disappointed. Four of us had put this point. We got nothing from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary and from the Minister we got something even more mysterious. He told us that we must regard these war savings, of which we all knew the explanation, as remaining to this day a special exception which has nothing to do with capital and has to do with stimulating savings. This puzzled us a great deal. We had assumed that every normal person in considering disregards knew perfectly well that one had this amount of capital disregarded in war savings, to which one could add £50 of any other capital. What we asked was not that this should be a disregard but that the total amount should be assessed at £375 plus £50 and that amount disregarded, irrespective of whether or not it was war savings. This was put perfectly clearly by all of us and we had no answer, except that in the Bill the Government proposed to improve the situation by increasing by £50 the amount other than war savings allowed to be disregarded.
I am talking on the issue of the capital to be absolutely disregarded, and we are still baffled as to why it is that one cannot accept that u sum of £375 is disregarded and that it can now be extended from war savings to all other forms of capital. Since war savings form a large part of the savings of small people, we see no reason why this should not be granted, but the Minister gave no kind of answer at all. We should like to know why he feels that he cannot make what, from an outside point of view, is the obvious change of accepting the fact of the total amount of savings to be disregarded and defining them as including war savings.